Monday, February 22, 2016

Mara Mixtape Vol. 2: Greatest Hits of the Hyena

It should come as no surprise to our readers that we spend a LOT of time with hyenas. After spending months with our study subjects, we’ve all developed an acute case of “hyena on the brain.” Though my last Mara Mixtape was sadly lacking in hyena songs, rest assured we’ve come up with a song for just about every situation involving hyenas we’ve ever encountered, and I’d like to share some of them with you now. You’ll notice we’ve shifted from a classical/instrumental genre into somewhat more modern songs, which are far easier to sing acapella obnoxiously in the car when we encounter the scenarios I’ll describe below.

Who Are You? – The Who
This is probably the song we sing most often to hyenas. It's pretty self-explanatory.

Ridin’ – Chamillionaire
I’m not going to include a link to this song as most of the lyrics are very not safe for work, but suffice to say the opening line is very relevant. Emily reduced the entire car to tears of laughter last week when she burst into “They see me rollin’, they hatin’” while watching a hyena wiggling around scratching its back.

Somebody That I Used to Know – Gotye
As Emily mentioned in a recent blog post, we’ve been struggling to find the lost clan of Happy Zebra for several months now. On the rare occasions we do find an individual of Happy Zebra clan, we experience the terrible sensation of scrambling to remember the spots of a hyena we once knew like the back of our hands. Alas, that is no longer the case, so this song seemed very appropriate.

Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
Some of the male hyenas called me up with a request for this volume of my mixtape. They want to dedicate this song to the lovely hyena ladies of the Mara. Here’s to you, brown-eyed hyena girls!

Bonus track:

Fancy – Iggy Azalea
I had to include one non-hyena track on this list because it was too good to resist. Male topi have the most hilarious display behavior they use to show off for females. They hold their heads and tails as high as they can, and do a high-stepping trot like a dressage horse, usually for a female who already has a baby and is therefore totally uninterested in him. It's impossible to watch without smiling, and for me, without hearing Iggy Azalea croon about how fancy she is. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Love Bites

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day: a day full of hearts, chocolate, roses, and lots and lots of money for Hallmark and Hershey.

In the hyena world, romance isn’t always so, well, rosy.

The spotted hyena social structure has dealt the males a tough hand. Males are lower ranking than all the females in a clan, and are frequently the targets of female aggression, often for no reason. And yet, males are the ones who initiate courtship – which includes getting unusually (read: dangerously) close to the female - hoping she’ll take kindly to them and they’ll eventually mate. To understand how hyena “flirting” works, let’s follow the hypothetical love story of Leprechaun, a male in Serena’s North territory, and his lady Waffles, the clan’s benevolent matriarch.
It’s Valentine’s Day in the Masai Mara. Leprechaun has just had a solid breakfast of fresh Thomson’s gazelle and some scavenged buffalo foot. The sun is shining, the air is warm, and Leprechaun has made up his mind: today’s the day he’ll approach Waffles, the most beautiful hyena in the clan, and ask her to be his.

Leprechaun - isn't he cute?!
With a heart full of love, he arrives at the den, and he spots her; Waffles, reclining in the  sun as it sets fire to her ginger fur, a bit of drool hanging from her mouth, a spot of blood on her cheek...Leprechaun’s can hardly believe how perfect she is. He remains on the den’s periphery, partially hidden by tall grass, gathering his courage. He was so sure on his way over here, but now he’s faltering. The overwhelming desire to approach Waffles so strongly contradicts his instinct to be wary and flee from powerful female hyenas, he’s almost can’t decide what to do.

Waffles, what a beaut.
Nonetheless, Leprechaun finally screws his courage to the sticking place and walks towards her, although she seems to take no notice. But he’s not discouraged; in fact, he’s suddenly close enough to smell the mud she rolled in this morning, his heart pounding. Suddenly she turns her head to look at him, and as fast as he can say “whoop” Leprechaun has run away and is back where he started, among the tall grass. Frustrated with himself for approach-avoiding, he takes a few deep breathes, gathers his courage once more and tries again, taking steps towards her. But alas, he can’t seem to overcome the instinct to flee, and he runs again. Waffles seems unperturbed, which is apropos since females will ignore most flirting attempts.

This is a male, Euchre (left) and the Happy Zebra matriarch, Pike (right) demonstrating how females usually don't care about the males. Pike is completely ignoring Euchre's brave approach.
After approach-avoiding Waffles for thirty minutes to no avail, Leprechaun tries a different strategy. Crossing his forearms and lowering his body to the ground, he bows several times to his queen, hoping she’ll finally notice that he’s the most loving, dedicated, and adoring hyena in the clan.

Waffles, meanwhile, is watching a songbird loop and dip above the den.

Leprechaun, still determined, starts to paw the ground, his entire being overflowing with awe for his beau.

Waffles has found a piece of grass particularly interesting, and is smelling it with vigor.

Leprechaun, our persistent hero, decides to approach Waffles one more time. With all the bravery he can muster, he takes several, cautious steps in her direction. Just when he thinks Waffles will never love him back, she finally sees him...and lunges and snaps at him. He tries approaching again, and she chases him for a few meters. Leprechaun can hardly believe it – she likes him back!! Every male knows that if a lady likes you back, she aggresses on you more than the other dudes (duh).

Leprechaun, absolutely buzzing with glee, approaches his love one more time, and instead of aggressing, Waffles lowers her mouth to the ground to let him know she’s restraining herself from biting or snapping at him. Seeing this, Leprechaun knows his flirting was successful, as Waffles is showing signs of being receptive to his advances. Waffles will then follow him to a secluded area where they will attempt to mate (which, even after all of this, is still not guaranteed to be successful, but that’s another story for another blog post).

After Leprechaun, Waffles will most likely mate with multiple males during this time when she’s ready to conceive. It may sound like unfaithful behavior, but Leprechaun knows, deep in his heart, that she’ll always be his lady. This was by far his best Valentine’s Day yet.
In an alternative scenario, if Waffles was not interested in Leprechaun’s advances, she would have continued aggressing on him until he left her alone. He would walk away from the den, disheartened, with new scratches on his back and a wounded heart to match. Aren’t we so glad this wasn’t how our hypothetical story ended??

In the human world, rejection sure stings. But at least the girl doesn’t bite the boy on the face.

Source: Szykman, M., Van Horn, R.C., Engh, A.L., Boydston, E.E., & Holekamp, K.E. (2007). Courtship and mating in free-living spotted hyenas. Behavior, 144, 815-846.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mealtime in the Mara

The thing that the Lion King doesn't tell you about the Circle of Life is that it's actually somewhat horrific to see in person. In my time here, I've seen four mammals killed by other animals. Before I came out here, I had never seen anything killed and eaten before (thank goodness), and let me tell you, it is not an easy thing to watch.

But it is a part of life and survival out here – animals have to eat to live, and living is the ultimate goal of all biological organisms. The first two kills I witnessed have already been explained on this blog – the first, a leopard killing a baby zebra, the second, a jackal killing a rabbit. And now, for your viewing pleasure, the other two Mara Meals I've seen:

NOTE: These, as I mentioned before, are hard to watch, and caution should be exercised if you are squeamish/really love baby gazelles/have a terrible fear of ants.

This is Firefly, one of our South clan hyenas, eating a baby Thomson's gazelle. We were at the den when we saw her run by with it in her mouth, obviously delighted to have procured her meal, and we followed her to where she finally settled down to eat it, devouring the entire animal, bones and all, in literally five minutes. It was incredible – hard to believe even as it was happening in front of us. I have known for a while now that hyenas can eat 1/3 of their body weight in one sitting, but it never really hit home to me how fast and efficient that truly is until I saw this.

That mass of ants in this very shaky video I took is devouring a bat they likely knocked out of a tree. The bat is still alive as this is happening – we could hear it squeaking and you can see it flinch in the last few seconds of the video. This is undoubtedly the most horrible thing I have seen out here. We saw the bat fluttering about on the ground but the sheer volume of the ants overwhelmed it and it was covered in no time at all. At camp, we live in mild terror of siafu (the biting ants in the video), who can live in colonies of up to 50 million individuals and like to unexpectedly swarm and invade our tents. This incident just solidified our fear – all that was left of the bat come morning was a perfectly cleaned bat skeleton. Thankfully for us, siafu are usually simple enough to avoid as their typical mode of transport is in carefully regulated columns that we can easily step over. 

Mealtime in the Mara can be a disgusting thing to witness, but I am still glad that I have the opportunity to see these things and share them with all of you. 

Enjoy your dinners! ;)

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Mara's Mighty Hunters

While driving home from obs one fine January evening, we were startled by a flurry of motion in the road – a black-backed jackal in hot pursuit of a springhare. We stopped the car to watch the lightning-fast chase. One wrong step from the hare gave the jackal the opening he needed; in the blink of an eye he’d scooped up his prize in his jaws and trotted off into the grass to enjoy his freshly-caught dinner.

The thrill of watching the hunt got me wondering about the other hunters who inhabit the Mara. Almost every prey animal in this vast grassland is built for incredible speed, so how do the predators who live here manage to keep up? Hunting strategies vary widely by species, region and prey, but I’ll cover some of the most common techniques for the Mara’s greatest hunters.

I’ll start with the critter that sparked my interest: the black-backed jackal. Jackals are opportunistic omnivores, which essentially means they will eat anything they can get their jaws around. This covers everything from insects, reptiles and rodents, all the way up to fully grown impala. For smaller prey, like rodents and the unfortunate hare whose demise we witnessed, jackals use their impressive agility to catch and subdue their food. For larger prey like gazelles and impala, jackals switch to a harrying technique to compensate for their small size – harassing an animal until it’s too tired to fight back, then taking it down with bites to the throat or stomach. Though they don’t hunt nearly as much as the obligate carnivores (animals which are only capable of eating meat) of the Mara, jackals have a hunting prowess all out of proportion with their size.

Like the jackal, leopards have a size disadvantage to many of the species they choose to prey upon. Weighing in at only 66-176lbs, leopards are outweighed by some of the larger antelopes that make up their diet. They make up for this with unparalleled stealth and jaw strength. Leopards stalk their prey by night, choosing to pounce at close range from the ground or dropping from trees onto their unsuspecting target. As we were lucky enough to witness, they can kill with blinding speed, using powerful jaws to crush their prey’s throat. Unfortunately, leopards are frequent victims of prey-theft by lions and hyenas due to their small size. To prevent this, they commonly stash carcasses in trees. If you’re wondering how much strength that would take, try dragging something that weighs more than you do backwards up a tree using only your mouth, and let me know how it goes.

Don’t tell the hyenas, but cheetahs are my personal favorite Mara hunter. Unmatched in elegance and, of course, in speed, the cheetah has definitely earned its place as the world’s fastest land mammal. Different sources give different numbers, but most experts I could find agree these lovely cats can break at least 60mph in a dead sprint. Everything about the cheetah is built for speed. Their spine is extra flexible to allow their legs to reach huge distances per stride. Their claws have lost the ability to retract in favor of acting like sprinter’s cleats to give them greater grip on the ground. Even their tails are adapted for use as a counterbalance, allowing cheetahs to cancel forward momentum in order to change directions more quickly in the heat of a chase. All of these finely-tuned adaptations pay off: cheetahs have a nearly unheard-of hunting success rate of 50%. The much-lauded lion has a success rate of only 17-19% when hunting alone, or around 30% when hunting in groups. However, there are drawbacks to their speedy build. Cheetahs are comparatively small and fragile, which mean as many as half of their successful kills are stolen by lions and hyenas.

They may not be the most successful, but lions are certainly the biggest and the baddest of the Mara’s hunters. Some males in East Africa have reached sizes of around 390lbs. Their impressive bulk means they can’t keep up with agile antelope in a test of speed, so they must rely on stealth instead. Lions hunting on their own will stalk their prey, taking advantage of the Mara’s tall grasses to hide them until they are within pouncing distance. Lions hunting in groups can get a little fancier, and employ tactics where one lion lies in wait while others drive the prey into an ambush. Though they have the reputation as one of the world’s mightiest hunters, lions actually prefer to scavenge whenever possible. They use their strength and numbers to shoo other predators off their kills and take the food for themselves. Typically, only a group of hyenas are capable of defending themselves at carcasses when lions come calling.

Last, but certainly not least, our own beloved spotted hyenas. Hyenas are possibly the world’s most infamous scavengers and carcass thieves, but it is a reputation that is only partially deserved. Hyenas do indeed scavenge and steal, but they are excellent hunters in their own right, killing up to 90% of their own food. Rather than employing speed and stealth like most of the Mara’s predators, hyenas rely on their powers of endurance. Hyenas are built to run at a steady lope for many kilometers, wearing their prey down until it is incapable of running any farther before eating it alive.


Holekamp, K. E., Smale, L., Berg, R. and Cooper, S. M. (1997), Hunting rates and hunting success in the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Journal of Zoology, 242: 1–15. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.1997.tb02925.x

Kamler, J., Foght, J., & Collins, K. Single black‐backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) kills adult impala (Aepyceros melampus). African Journal of Ecology 09/2009; 48(3):847 - 848. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2028.2009.01173.x

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science