Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Darting in the Mara

Hello again, My name is Benson and I am a Research Assistant (RA) for the Mara Hyena Project.
As an RA, we do many things like going out for observations every morning and every evening to collect behavioral data. We also collect demographical data which includes counting the number of hyenas each day. But one of the most interesting responsibilities that we have as RAs is darting hyenas.

When I first started darting it was very stressful. One of the first hyenas I darted was a sub-adult female named Galapagos. The darting seemed to go well and Galapagos fell asleep smoothly. It wasn’t until it was time to wake her up that things started becoming difficult. I was afraid that she might not have woken up because she was not lifting her head or moving. I asked my fellow RA, Hadley and Grad student, David what we should do. We checked her heart rate and her breathing patterns and they checked out ok, but she was still a sleep. Finally, after two hours of waiting, Galapagos started waking up and lifting her head. I was relieved and happy that Galapagos was alive and strong. From this experience I saw how important it was to follow certain rules when darting hyenas.

How do we dart hyenas?
When darting an animal we have to take certain precautions. There are many rules to follow in order to make sure an animal is safe. One rule we follow, is that we will not dart any animal if they are near large pools of water or near surrounding bushes. We do this because the animal might harm itself by drowning in these large pools or being harmed by other animals hidden in the bushes. Another important rule we follow, is that we will never dart female hyenas near male hyenas. This is because if a female hyena is vulnerable, then a male hyena may take advantage of the situation and harm her. Once the situation is safe then we can begin to set up for darting.

We first start by concentrating the drug and loading it into the dart. Then we load the dart into the Telinject Darting gun. We sit and wait until the hyena is not looking at us, because we do not want the hyena to associate the darting experience with us. And when the opportunity allows, we can successfully dart the hyena.

Why do we dart hyenas?
Once the hyena is asleep, we proceed in collecting a variety of physiological samples. We collect blood samples for DNA analysis. We also collect bacterial swabs from the anus, anal sac (paste gland) nares, buccal and prepuse (phallus or genitalia) because we want to see if there are common bacteria strains shared within the clan. We also put radio collars on males that are getting ready to disperse, or leave the clan to find a new home. Radio collars help us study where they go and how far they go from their natal or home territory. We often collar adult females so we can track their movements within the territory.
Additionally, we measure dental and body parts while the hyena is asleep.

Once we have collected all the data we place the animal under a “recovery bush” that protects it front other animals and heat. After the hyena is safe, we return to camp to process our samples and then place them in LN2 for proper storage until they can be sent back to Michigan for further analysis.

How darting is important for researchers like us.
Darting is important because we are able to learn new things about each individual hyena, as well as the clan as a whole. We have collected a lot of DNA from many of our study hyenas in order to form hyena genetic relationships. Members in our lab back in Michigan are studying parental genetic relationships as well as other family ties. Darting is a great opportunity to gather more information about hyenas and their behavior. I am excited to continue to work for this project and learn more about these amazing creatures.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Back in the lab!

“Hello Hadley Emma Emma Couraud; It’s Time to Check In!”

When I received this email September 17th, I was confused.
             1.Why does Delta think I have two middle-names…that are the same?
2           2. Is it really time for me to leave Kenya? It can’t be.

But, it was and as much as I didn’t want to leave field work, Talek camp was very securely trained. Instead of teaching, I was merely observing, as Jared, Ciara, Benson and Wilson ran the research and camp. It was time to return to the lab and jump back into the work that I was needed for there.

The States welcomed me, complete with apples, ice, and doors (it’s amazing how much you miss doorknobs at hand level, rather than the dealing with zippers at ground level). After a weekend with my family (and claustrophobia in buildings and restless sleeping between walls), I was back in the lab; my first day back presented a perfect micro-array of the work I return to here.

My trusty two-wheeling bike brought me to work (a dramatic change from the Land Cruiser we spend 6-8 hours a day in the field). Pulling out my keys outside the lab, I unlocked the doors, and walked in to see:
Supplies from the 'wetting' registry!
And, on my desk:

Hard-drive of digital data and slide boxes with blood smears.
So the organizing, filing, and packing into Kenya-bound packages begins again!

Throughout the day, I worked on historical dates of when the project began monitoring certain ecological measurements, research clearances for new Research Assistants, average monthly expenses in each camp, MSU’s safety courses for every member of our lab, and began my most next most immediate project – confirming and correcting data in our lion-hyena interaction database.
Looking through Kay's original notes for lion-hyena data.
From observing the hyenas and transcribing notes each day, my mind is coming back to the point of view I have here in the lab – long-term patterns and the full cycle of research and project managing. As a Research Assistant, you observe the hyenas, transcribe notes, and collect samples. Once you’ve collected the poop and put it in liquid nitrogen, drawn blood and made blood smears on slides, or typed your notes and sent them back to Michigan, your part is over. Now managing the lab, my job helps keep all that data moving and fitting into the larger picture. Getting the samples back to Michigan, filing notes, extracting behaviors, and creating entire sets of data, dating back to 1988.

After about four or five hours of work here at this point, I begin to think, “it has to be time to see the hyenas now, right?”. Obviously that is no longer the case, a reality I am still adjusting to. While I miss that part of the job, it is very satisfying to be part of the longer cycle again.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Hyena cub: "Eggs & Milk, please!"

     Imagine for a moment what it would be like to conduct dissertation work that involves watching hyena cubs fighting one another. Now, toss in an egg or some powdered milk and you have the project of Mr. Eli Strauss, a Ph.D. candidate of the lab. As part of my time out here in the Mara, I will be responsible for managing Eli’s egg & milk trials in the Talek West clan. What does that mean, exactly?
This is Flaming Lily. Both her and her brother, Scarlet Hibiscus, are eager participants of egg and milk trials.
     Diverting from their normally angelic nature, the goal of this experiment is to bring about observable aggression in young cubs over a food source: an egg or some powdered milk. Why is watching hyenas fight one another at such a young age important, you may ask? As spotted hyena clans follow a female-dominated (matriarchal) linear hierarchy, questions about how and when their rank is learned have fascinated researchers of the species and of social systems alike. What we know is that around the age of nine-ten months cubs have learned their rank in the clan, but up to that point it remains unclear how cubs are ranked and the rate at which cubs learn their place. By watching aggressive interactions between cubs at the youngest age possible, Eli is studying the state of the hierarchy prior to a cub learning who it is dominant and subordinate to (ranked above and below, respectively). This transitional stage from birth to learned matrilineal (mother’s) rank is extremely valuable in understanding the social structure of the spotted hyena system.
Some of my most lively trials so far have been at Dave's Den. Here I am observing a few of the many cubs denning there. Watching their faces become covered in milk powder or wet with egg yolk has been entirely amusing. Photo: H.Couraud
     What do we do during an egg or milk trial? Watching cuddlesome cubs snap or lunge or bite each other is an undeniably amusing aspect of observing hyenas daily, but there’s more to it than you may be thinking. With a mounted video camera, the egg or milk is deployed from our cruiser and once two or more cubs are feeding, the action begins. We record all hyenas individually, and with young cubs that can be quite the task! Cubs are born with completely black fur, and it isn’t until around three months that shoulder spots begin to form after molting (shedding of their birth fur) and it can be several months after that before we can tell litter-mates (cubs born together) apart. We do our best detective work to distinguish between any visible differences like scarring, missing fur, or ear damage. Once the trial is underway all agonistic (aggressive & submissive) interactions are recorded in the hopes of seeing how young cubs treat one another when competing over the limited (and tasty!) food source.

Photo: H.Couraud
Thanks for reading, hyena-nature-Mara-lovers. That’s all from Kenya for now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Follow the Brown Murram Road

Before I begin, a short disclaimer: This is a very long story, but a good one! If you’re pressed for time, skip to the last paragraph for a quick summary. If not, enjoy the read!

Part of our job as Fisi Camp researchers is to make a fairly regular drive to Nairobi and back. We do this to pick up new RA’s and grad students, buy groceries for camp, fill our liquid nitrogen tanks and run various errands in the city. If you were to look at a map, this seems like a very short trip; by plane its only about 45 minutes. By car, however, is a different story. With traffic, the poor state of the roads in some areas, and our vehicles’ inability to handle hills in higher than 2nd gear when weighted down, it can turn into quite a long day.

I had a particularly interesting experience making the return trip back to the Mara a few months ago. I was coming back from a short vacation with my parents, and missed my flight back to the Mara. Luckily, a balloon pilot that happens to live close to us was making the return trip from Nairobi the next day, so I was able to hitch a ride. We made it all the way to Narok, the halfway point between Nairobi and Talek, without so much as a hiccup. We had a minor set-back in Narok with a speed camera and an over-zealous officer who pulled us over for going 2km/h over the speed limit, but that didn’t hold us up for too long.

The fun started on the way out of Narok. This is the point where the asphalt roads end, and the murram soil roads begin. Things went smoothly for the first 45 minutes, but our conversation was broken abruptly by a very loud popping sound coming from the left rear tire. We assumed it was a flat; we get flat tires pretty often out here. But a quick look revealed that we were wrong. A section of the tread on the tire, about a meter long, had actually ripped itself off and was hanging freely. No problem, that’s what spares are for! Unfortunately our next realization was that the spare tire didn’t have any pressure, it must have picked up a slow leak at some point.

So, with no other option, we continued very slowly down the road until we were lucky enough to come across a man riding a motorbike. He agreed to carry our spare to the nearest town to get it patched, and bring it back to us. About 30 minutes passed, and we were relieved to see him speeding back toward us. He returned our tire, and left us with a few words: “Drive fast, the tire is still not okay.” With that advice we replaced the tire with no tread, and we were off.

It was about 10 minutes before the other rear tire went flat. Since we now had no spare, we drove on the flat tire until we reached the next town, and went straight to the mechanic. After about an hour of waiting, and the realization that we had lost our wheel spanner, the car was once again drivable and we were ready to go. And that’s when the battery problem started. So we got back out and push started the car, and continued on to the Oloololo gate into the Mara triangle; almost home!

We made it to the gate at about 10pm, almost 4 hours after closing. We had informed the rangers that we would be coming in late, but they certainly were not happy with us for being that late. After a little bit of argument, they let us through the gate, and as we got out of the car to thank them we discovered our next flat tire!

With no spare, and no mechanic nearby to patch our tire for us, we had no choice but to call one of the guys in the balloon crew for help. We got him on the phone and explained the situation; he told us that he would do his best to come rescue us, but he would have to get permission from the rangers to be out at night. And that’s when my phone credit ran out, and we were left to wonder whether or not we were being picked up that night.

Ninety more minutes went by, and we spotted headlights! He managed to get permission and made it out to us with two spare tires! And it was a good thing he brought two, because as soon as we replaced the current flat and got the car push started again, we found that we had another flat tire. We changed that tire with our last spare, and got back to camp as quickly as possible before the car decided to break down completely.

In the end, we had one tire with the tread ripped off, four flats, a malfunctioning battery, some trouble at the gate and a premature end to our SOS call. But after 16 hours we managed to make it back home for a well earned night’s sleep.

P.S. For any concerned readers, this was a balloon crew vehicle (and their lost wheel spanner) with all of these problems. The Fisi cars are alright!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Home Sweet Home

The Maasai Mara is a vast and beautiful place. I get the same feeling from the endless golden grasses that I do from staring at a huge body of water: that sense of awe and reminder of my own insignificance.

We biologists aren’t here in the Mara to appreciate its beauty, however. We’re here to find hyenas. And when the view from the car most days looks a little something like this:

Grass, grass and more grass. 
…our job can be somewhat difficult. Fortunately for us, hyenas are social creatures and often gather at the communal dens where all the mothers keep their current cubs. When we know where the den is, we usually need only to drive there and we’ll be sure to find at least a few hyenas socializing, playing with cubs or grabbing a quick nap in a shady spot. Unfortunately for us, hyenas are also prone to moving their communal dens without warning and not bothering to leave us a forwarding address.

For most of my month in Serena Camp, we were unable to find the communal den of one of our three study clans, South Clan. Every observation session in South territory became a three-hour-long game of Where’s Waldo, only if Waldo was lower to the ground, the exact same color as the surrounding landscape, and very good at hiding in tall grass, rock fields, and clumps of bushes that our cars can’t drive through.

In times like these we rely on our radio tracking equipment. Several of our hyenas in each clan are fitted with some very fashionable collars, like so:

Taj Mahal, sporting her lovely jewelry. 
Armed with a couple fancy antennas, a giant pair of headphones and a radio receiver, we can track the signals broadcast by their collars and hopefully reduce the amount of time we spend driving around the Mara staring at grass.

One of our cars with the aforementioned fancy antennas.
In particular, we tend to collar females with young cubs because they are the most likely to spend a lot of time at the communal den with their cubs. If the clan decides to pack up and move camp, we should be able to track one of the mothers straight to the new den. In South Clan, however, none of our collared females have young cubs at the moment so our tracking usually led us to the collar-wearer standing around by herself. Not very exciting.

But on one fortuitous occasion, we didn’t need tracking at all. In the distance we happened to spot several hyenas standing around a mound. Then we got very lucky: one of those hyenas happened to have a young cub who popped out of a hole in the ground as we approached and began to nurse.
Clovis and the newest South Clan member, Wasabi!
Because we were very VERY lucky, several other South females happened to have cubs as well. Lo and behold, we’d found the new South den!

You have no idea how happy we are to meet you, cubs!
We have a den full of new cubs to watch, a meeting spot for the clan’s adults, and no need to view the empty, hyena-less plains with dread any longer. With special thanks to Clovis and her new cub Wasabi for tipping us off, we are happy hyena researchers once again!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Talek Familias

Each day I become more and more comfortable living in this new place. One thing that has helped me settle in so well is being able to live with such wonderful people and getting to know them and their families.

Since I’ve arrived, we have had many of the guy’s families come and stay with us.
Their company has been enjoyable and I’ve learned to appreciate how important family is to everyone in this camp. For the RAs it will be months until we are reunited with our loved ones back home. And although it does get hard being away for so long, it is encouraging that others have willingly adopted us into their extended families.

I’d like to introduce you all to a couple of families that have made my stay that much better.

Chief, his wife Emily and son Jeremy

 Benson and his son Lemayan

Chief and Benson’s families have been here for about a month and Jared and I have learned so much from them. There have been long talks on family customs and traditions and the differences and similarities shared between families here and in the states. For instance, in the states many think of our immediate families as our parents and siblings. And most families in the states only live with their immediate family. Here, immediate families does not only include your parents and siblings it also could include your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

There could be more than one home on a plot of land filled with your entire family. The cluster of single family units can create a massive family fortress. It amazes me how tightly bonded families are and how they work together to make sure the entire family benefits. It is something I hope to evolve in my own family when the time comes. But until then I am happy to be a part of this fisi family fortress.


Thursday, September 3, 2015


Some of the most iconic and beautiful animal species call the Masai Mara home, and us RA’s are lucky enough to share this place with them. But I think we often overlook the beautiful plants that surround us daily, while the Masai people have been dependent on these plants for medicine, food, and tools for centuries. So, deviating from hyenas a bit, I did some research on the local plant life and found some great facts about our flora friends!

Pepper-bark tree (Warburgia salutaris)
This tree has roots that are used to treat malaria or, when smoked, used to alleviate the common cold.

Magic guarri (Euclea divinorum)
A magic guarri toothbrush
  • Many believe this plant has magical powers, so boughs are often hung above door frames to bring good luck. 
  • The twigs can be frayed and used as toothbrushes.
  • The fruit is edible, though it doesn't taste so great while raw. Many use it for brewing beer, and also to make purple dye.This plant can tolerate soils with heavy metal content, so it has been used as an indicator for gold deposits.
Simple-spined Carissa (Carissa edulis)

  • The edible fruits are used to make jam and fermented to make vinegar, while the roots are added to soups for flavoring.
  • Pieces of the root are fixed to roofs as snake repellant.
  • The plant contains carissin, which is believed to have a possible use in the treatment of cancer.
  • The twigs contain substances that are effective medicines against tapeworms.
  • The leaves, when boiled, can relieve toothaches.

Whistling thorn tree (Acacia drepanolobium)     
            This acacia tree has a unique relationship with ants, believe it or not. The tree’s thorns are swollen at the base and produce a nectar. This creates a great little home for the Crematogaster mimosae ants, who then colonize the base of the thorn, eating the nectar. In return for food and shelter, the ants will swarm and bite browsing animals on the tree, reducing damage from browsing. Who knew trees and ants could be friends?

Sausage Tree (Kigelia africana)
From Annette Rumbelow
  • These large, beautiful trees produce a large, sausage-shaped fruit (hence the name) that can grow up to 9kg (nearly 20lbs!).
  • The sausage fruit is fermented to make beer (a very strong beer, I’ve been told).
  • They also make great sundowner spots in Talek Camp! 

South African National Biodiversity Institute
The Nature Institute (New York)
 Bussman, R.W.  et al. (2006) Plant use of the Maasai of Sekenani Valley, Maasai Mara, Kenya. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.
Orwa C., A. Mutua, Kindt R., Jamnadass R, S. Anthony (2009) Agroforestree Database:a tree reference and selection guide version 4.0.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science