Monday, May 30, 2016

One hyena's spit is another man's treasure

We’ve talked about a lot of projects on this blog, but somehow I’ve failed to mention my favorite: saliva collection. It’s hard to believe anyone would get excited about hyena spit, I know, but bear with me. You’ll understand.

The process starts out here, with a tub of vegetable fat, some rope pieces, and an episode of my current favorite TV show playing in the background.
The ropes get a knot tied in one end, then they’re slathered with a thin layer of Kimbo. The final product ends up like this:
Next, the ropes are slotted into a hollow stick, with a bolt over the knot to keep the rope in place. Now we’re ready to go fishing for cubs.
 Whenever we’re at a den, we put the saliva sticks out the windows and brace ourselves for the best game of tug-o’-war ever. The Kimbo entices cubs to chew on the rope, drooling all over it in the process. Saliva carries a lot of hormones, so our goal is to collect samples from cubs before and after they do an exciting behavior, like play or an aggression. The ‘before’ sample gives us a baseline, while the ‘after’ sample lets us see how the cub’s hormones have changed in response to that behavior.

Mandrake demonstrating proper chewing technique
The actual saliva collection can be as tricky as it is fun. Cubs can start out enthusiastic, but lose interest and wander off to chew something more exciting (like the tires) before we’ve gotten enough of their saliva. We also have to ensure only one cub ever touches the stick so we know there is no cross-contamination of hormones. That can be quite difficult when there are 12 rambunctious cubs at a den, all anxious for a nibble of some of that tasty Kimbo. Keeping two hands on the stick at all times is also very important – those tiny hyenas can tug!

Yours truly about to do battle with Butcher - one of our most notorious chewers. Infamous for the dual sins of trying to yank the stick out of your hand, and attempt to saw the rope clean off the stick. Those meat-slicing teeth can do a number on rope!
Once we have a slimy, spit-soaked rope at the end of our stick, we’re ready for the next step. The rope is removed from the stick and put into one of these special tubes.
When centrifuged, the tubes allow saliva to be pulled out of the rope down into the lower section of the tube, while the rope stays in the top. Then we can throw away the rope and transfer the saliva to a cryotube to be frozen, awaiting transportation back to the US.

If you’d told me a year ago that tug-o’-war with a passel of hyena cubs would be part of my daily routine, I would have laughed in your face. But now I can’t imagine my life without it!

Friday, May 27, 2016

How hyenas use whoops to communicate

Communication: The whoop.

If you were asked to define communication, what would you say?
You might think it is an obvious subject to define; I talk and you listen. You may also recognize that within the animal kingdom there are numerous ways to communicate and therefore, it can be difficult to find one definition that includes all the modes of communication between species. Here I would like to define communication and explain how animals, like hyenas, do so.

Communication is defined as a signal being sent from one individual (sender) and received by another individual (receiver). The signal has some sort of information within it and the receiver uses that information to make a decision.

Signals can take many forms (i.e visual, acoustic, chemical, auto-communication) and signals can carry different types of information the sender wants the receiver to know. A signal is made by the sender in order to affect the receiver’s behavior in some way.
Signals that have been favored by selection elicit a response from the receiver that most likely benefits the sender while indirectly or directly benefiting the receiver.

For example, what does it mean when your mother glares at you for sticking your hand in the cookie jar before dinner. The glare is a visual signal sent from your mother across the room to be received by you, when your eyes become locked onto hers. Most of us know exactly what she means without a sound coming out of her mouth. The information the glare carries is “Don’t you dare take a cookie out of the cookie jar!” 

In addition to signals taking visual form they also can take acoustic or sound form. We all can think of a moment when an animal makes some sound or vocalization that we have perceived as having some sort of meaning. When my dog needs to go outside, like the good boy he is, he whines at me. I perceive that he is trying to get my attention and tell me something. The vocalization he makes is a signal to tell me he wants to go outside and I am going to make a decision either to let him out or not.

It’s interesting to think that if I can interpret what my dog is trying to tell me, other animals must have ways to communicate certain information with one another. This idea is just one of many questions we investigate in hyenas.

What is sound and how do hyenas use it to communicate?

Like most mammals, hyenas use a combination of signal forms to communicate to each other, but for the purposes of this blog entry I will be focusing on acoustic or sound signals produced by hyenas.

In order to understand how hyenas use sound to communicate, it is important to know how sound functions and the properties of sound. However, I do not think you all want to get a full physics lesson today so I will make a short list of things to review:

1.     Sound is the movement of dense perturbed molecules through a medium away from the initial source.
2.     To create sound an animal has to create a local concentration of molecules denser than the surrounding molecules.
a.      For example, air molecules are less dense than water molecules. This is why you are louder outside of water (easier to create denser molecules) when you scream to the top of your lungs vs when you scream inside of water (harder to create denser molecules).
3.     Sound moves in waves. A wave’s properties include: period (time), frequency or “pitch” (cycle per time; Hz), amplitude or “loudness” (height of wave), phase and wavelength.
4.     Sound responds to changes in pressure.
5.     Sound propagates at different speeds through air, water and solids, and can be impeded by the matter it moves through.

It is also important to know sound is produced.
Sound is produced by three steps:

1.     Creating Vibrations
2.     Modifying Vibrations
3.     Coupling Sound

Most mammals use their larynx to produce sound. Animals make vibrations either through muscular contractions, stridulation (i.e. crickets), percussion or forced flow of medium through small opening. The vibration then is filtered by an internal mechanism or constraint which results in the modified signal. The modified signal is sent out and must be coupled or matched properly to the animal’s environment. Coupling or matching depends on the morphology and internal mechanisms the animal uses to produce its vibrations.

Receivers of the sound also have to couple, modify and analyze the information given to them before making a decision. 

Hyena Sounds

Hyenas produce many different vocalizations. Some include:
The giggle or most commonly known as a hyena "laugh." The groan, which is a low humming sound. The growl, like how your dog may growl. The low, sounds like the mooing of cattle. And the whoop, a long distance sound compiled of high and low frequency notes.

The whoop is a powerfully unique sound not found in any other mammalian species.  For this reason, and many others, the whoop vocalization has been a target for research. 

Historically, researchers have investigated the whoop vocal structure, as well as, the whoop’s behavioral functions (East & Hofer, 1991). Hyenas display their own identify through their whoops. The literature provides evidence to hyena’s abilities in recognizing individuals by their whoops. They also discuss how an individual’s whoops remain relatively stable throughout their lifetime but are modified as they mature.
Additionally, researchers have shown whooping is used to broadcast a caller’s location so others can locate her. This function allows callers to defend food resources and territories by rallying allies.

Whoops, as you can see, can communicate various information. This is why our project and graduate student Kenna Lehmann have been working hard to deconstruct the whoop.

Whoop Bout

Within a whoop bout there are three different types of whoops, asymmetrical (A type), symmetrical (S type) and terminal (T type). A whoop bout can combine any of the three types, but are not held to any order.

A type are asymmetrical whoops starting at a low frequency rising to a high frequency with an abrupt fall.

S type are symmetrical whoops starting at a low frequency rising to a high frequency and decline to a low frequency.

T type are terminal whoops; these do not rise in frequency but remain at a constant low frequency. T type are typically heard at the end of a whoop bout.

The recording below illustrates one entire whoop bout.
The whooper is Roswell (RSWL); a tenured immigrant male who reigns over the Pond Lugga group in Talek West clan. He is one of the only males who is allowed to get up close and personal with the females and is speculated of being the sire to many of the cubs in this small group. He begins his bout with a long symmetric (S type) whoop and repeats it 4 times then continues with 2 asymmetric (A type) whoops and ends with a soft terminal whoop (T type). 

When I found RSWL he was sacked on in the road by himself so I decided to stay with him for a while. As I waited he let out this mighty call. Based on the information you have above you may speculate that he was either sending a call to elicit a response from another hyena or letting others know he was around—friend or foe. Regardless, Roswell was definitely announcing his presence and letting all of the Mara know who is Big Daddy.

I hope you have learned a thing of two about whoops and hyena vocalization. I have asked our camp to show our fans a little love and say a little something to encourage people like you to share all you’ve learned about the spotted hyena, crocuta crocuta.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hyena Science: For Kids!

As a kid, I grew up devouring any books I could find about animals.  When other kids were reading about Little Red Riding Hood, I was reading about wolf biology.  When other kids were reading Mother Goose, I was reading books about birds of prey that I checked out from the library.  I loved tales of wilderness, wildlife, and adventure, and I thirsted to learn as much as I could about zoology and the world around me.  Jean Craighead George, Jack London, and Gary Paulsen were among my favorite authors, and through their words they crafted me windows into creatures and places I could not see from the southern California suburb where I grew up.

Since books about animals influenced me early in life and nourished my interest in a career in wildlife biology (not to mention my development as a creative writer!), I am very excited to announce that a children’s book is in the works about Dr. Holekamp and the Mara Hyena Project!  Author Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop stayed with us here in Talek Camp from May 15 to May 25, collecting material for the book.  Below is my interview with this dynamic duo about their upcoming book, The Hyena Scientist, part of the Scientists in the Field series from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

Amy:  Tell me about this book. What inspired you to make it?

Sy:  I’m the author of The Hyena Scientist. We’re writing this nonfiction book about Kay and the Mara Hyena Project for younger readers, grades 5 through 8. This book is not only full of adventure and excitement, but also inspiring stories about both people and animals.

Kay Holekamp is known as the Jane Goodall of hyenas.  She’s got one of the longest-running studies of a mammal in the world, and with such important findings to share with us all!  Some of the things Kay discovered about hyenas totally transformed the way we look at these animals.  And that’s one of the things we hope to do when our book comes out, is to show people what gorgeous, intelligent, caring animals hyenas are, not skulking, cowardly scavengers!

Nic:  I’m taking the photographs for this book.  What drew me to this project is that I always like oddball animals, the sort of strange ones other people don’t normally like.  Often when you look at things really closely, especially animals, they have all sorts of amazing facts you can find out about them, and hyenas seem to be no exception to that.  They’re quite complex social animals, and they’re not really the nasty villains people think they are.  And they’re very nice to photograph!  They do have rather cute faces and teddy bear ears and soft fur around their faces, so I really like photographing them.  And they have a lot of interesting behaviors to photograph as well.  And of course the ones we’re looking at live in the Masai Mara, which is a beautiful landscape with huge sweeps of plains and amazing thunderstorms coming over, so from a photographer’s view it’s just a great animal and a great location.

Sy Montgomery (left) and Nic Bishop (right) experience firsthand the joys of muddy roads in the Mara. Credit Nic Bishop.

Amy:  How did you get inspired to take this approach to conservation and educating people about animals?  For whom do you write, and why do you do what you do?

Sy:  Growing up, my best friends were always animals, so I think I might have had more friends than other kids I was growing up with, who restricted their friendships to just one species, Homo sapiens.  I write for both adults and children.  Every book I write about an animal is really a song of praise and a love story to that animal and to the people who also love the creature.  It’s also a plea for keeping the world whole.

Nic:  Although I trained as a scientist, I always really liked taking photographs, and I eventually decided to switch from just being a scientist to being a photographer of nonfiction books, of natural history books.  I started out doing books for adults, but I liked photographing oddball animals, like frogs and spiders and snakes and lizards, and people kept telling me that kids really responded well to these pictures. I was surprised at first, because I thought I was doing this for grownups, but apparently kids much prefer those pictures of the small little creepy things, and eventually a children’s publisher came to me and said I should really be doing nonfiction books for kids.

Nonfiction is not that well-represented in children’s books.  Kids get given a lot of fiction to read, but nonfiction is very important, and some kids who want nonfiction, if they can’t find it at the library, just give up on reading, because the library doesn’t have the information they’re interested in.  So that’s what I’ve done for the last decade or two – purely nonfiction books for kids.  I really love doing it.  It’s a great audience, books are a lot of fun to do and I get to photograph all my favorite critters!

Amy:  What advice would you give to children and other readers of yours who are interested in wildlife and conservation? How can they help animals and the planet?

Sy:  For young kids, I want to remind them how much power they have.  You can’t vote and you can’t drive, but children actually educate their parents.  Studies have shown that parents of schoolchildren get about 70% of their environmental news from their kids.  So children actually drive a lot of decisions in the household which deeply affect the environment: what you buy, what you drive, how many kids you have, and of course things like making donations, joining organizations, and volunteering.  All of those things really help, and we are far more powerful than we know.

Sy with our Talek West hyena, McDonald's, after we darted him on May 22.  Credit Nic Bishop.
Sy:  We can also be far more destructive than we know. The first step to fixing that is awareness of the damage we cause, but awareness doesn’t do any good at all unless you do something about it, and there is so much room for improvement that we can all do much, much better.

And for new adults, right after college or in college, I would say whatever your talents are, you can use them to help animals and preserving the Earth.  You don’t have to be a wildlife conservation biologist to do this.  On many of the projects Nic and I have worked on, people with completely different skills – artists, marketing experts, computer programmers, athletes – brought their talents to the table directly to help animals and the Earth.  There are so many ways you can use your abilities to benefit animals and the planet, and even if you don’t make it your life’s work, you can still channel a lot of energy into that.  And I’ll tell you, having spent my life recording and reporting on animals and the people who love them, there is no better or more fun thing you can do with the limited number of heartbeats you have.

Nic:  Remain curious about the things you’re very interested in. Read books about them to educate yourself, listen to other people interested in the same subject, study it, watch it on TV, persuade your parents to take you on trips to see animals, join clubs.  Feed your natural curiosity and passion, so you can hold onto those qualities even as you grow up.

Amy:  Thank you both so much for spending time with us here at the Mara Hyena Project and for setting out to teach young readers about hyenas!  The Hyena Scientist, a true tale about Kay Holekamp, the Mara Hyena Project, and Nic and Sy’s adventures with us here in Fisi Camp, will be in bookstores and libraries near you a year and a half to two years from now, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. I hope you’ll check it out!

Learn more about the work of Sy and Nic on their websites:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Guinea Fowl, Lions, and (of course) Hyenas

And we're back, bringing you even more sounds straight from the Masai Mara!

First off, some guinea fowl vocalizations, one of the more ridiculous birdcalls we hear. These particular guinea fowl decided to hang out at our hyenas' den in Happy Zebra territory while the cubs hid away underground.

Just this morning, eight lions walked right past our car as we were on obs, and we managed to record the sound of a rumbling growl from one of the subadult males and the subsequent sound of lions moving quickly through tall grass.

Now on to some hyena sounds! This first vocalization is Wasabi, a recently-graduated subadult male, whooping as he joins some older males in bristle-tail loping, sniffing, and pasting, often collectively referred to as "patrol" behavior.

The following track is a whoop that I thought sounded particularly odd. This hyena is one I hadn't seen before, a potential immigrant male to South territory, and he began whooping spontaneously about 100m away from the car. I only caught the last few whoops on the recording equipment, but it was so unique I thought I would share it!

Another unique vocalization - lowing! I had never heard this sound before collecting this recording a few weeks ago. This is Venice, an adult male in South territory. He lowed and then proceeded to go on patrol with one of his buddies, Santa Cruz, who loped up as he was lowing.

That's all for now! Tune in next time for even more Sounds of Kenya!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Why am I always running on four hours of sleep? How are we supposed to get back to camp when the engine just blew up? What are we supposed to do when the camp washes away in a flood?
Why am I writing this grant that I know is going to get rejected? How am I supposed to analyze this complex data? What am I going to do with all these genetic samples when all of my wet-lab courses have been theoretical?

These are just a few of the laments from scientists who attempt what some perceive is impossible, combining intensive field studies with state of the art wet-lab assays. When you add in that this is all to study the behavior of a socially complex species, one raises more than a few eyebrows, even among colleagues in the sciences. When we go to get funding or advice for studying how early development can shape neurological or hormonal outcomes, we get told that we should be doing this on mice in a lab. When we attempt the same for studying complex behavioral traits like personalities or cognitive abilities, we are told that there is just not enough control in free living species to reliably measure that. This has been a prevailing view in the sciences, and in the public eye, for quite some time, despite the numerous recent studies that have shown otherwise. Many believe field work is for discovering new species, tracking animal range shifts and decline, describing species-typical behaviors, and maybe population genetics. Conversely, wet-lab work requires high levels of control, and is for studying specific physiological mechanisms on short living model species. In short, between the difficulty of the work itself, many of us working on projects like the Mara Hyena Project, also have a hard time finding support even from the scientific community.

This brings us back to why. Why are we even doing this!?!?!?....... Well, it’s because of the “why”.

You see, each and every one of us grew up asking why. I’m not talking about just scientists, I mean everyone. Granted this drove our parents insane with our incessant “why, why, why”!! Eventually, many stopped asking why, or kept our questions to ourselves. “Why” is not always acceptable when working for large corporations or the government, at least not incessantly. Stopping to ask “why” when you have to run into a burning building to save someone could even cost people their lives. However, some of us can’t help it, we just can’t stop. What is worse is that it is strongly addictive. You see the moment the first “why” is answered, it opens up more “why”, “how”, “what” and “when” questions, and each time one of those questions gets an answer, they multiply exponentially. And ohhh, the thrill off chasing the answer, the high of opening new questions, nothing can compare. When you are on the verge of a new discovery that may change how we see the world, it’s like watching the fuse burn down right before the fireworks go off.

Fortunately, there is a place in the world for “why” addicts like ourselves in the sciences. Here we are encouraged to explore the freedom of asking “why”. What is more, there are guides on how to do it so that we can find answers and new questions more efficiently, and of higher quality. While the scientific method is almost formulaic in its function, it is the “why” that sparks it into motion. For those that are willing, there are even entire institutions dedicated to fulfilling the addiction of asking “why”, and mentors that are all too happy to get you into the habit and see the same hunger in young eyes that they have felt all their lives.

This addiction is what led my colleagues and myself to the Mara Hyena Project. Dr. Kay Holekamp came out to the Mara and the hyenas not long after finishing her PhD, looking to feed her own "why" addiction. Even she was surprised by the amount of questions she could ask, and with every paper, she found more and more. Now with nearly 28 years of study, the spotted hyenas of the Masai Mara have fed the addiction of "why" for dozens of graduate students, many post-doctoral students, and droves of up and coming undergraduate research assistants, not only in the field, but back in the labs at MSU. What is more, with improving techniques and technology, we have increased the number of questions that may be approached to unimaginable heights. Everyday when we drive out of camp, or walk into the lab, we can feel the rush of being able to ask "why" with the anticipation that we will be a part of the answer.

Therefore, the answer to why we put up with the pain, stress and hardships required to keep this project running, the answer is....... 
Why should we conform to what is expected?  Why would we restrict our freedom to explore? Why would we do anything else? Why would we ever want to stop asking why!?!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Are you doing this on purpose?" - an RA's lament

I’ve spent a pretty impressive amount of time with hyenas in the last 9 months, and I’ve become convinced they secretly possess an array of superpowers. Some of these powers I admire greatly: their incredible endurance, their intelligence and problem-solving skills, and their ability to bounce back from illness and injury with ease.

However, I’ve found that hyenas have one superpower I’d give just about anything for them to lose – their uncanny and unfailing ability to prevent us from identifying them. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying hyenas on the fly by now (if I do say so myself), and even so there are some days I think it’s miraculous we’re able to ID anyone at all.

Our hyenas have a variety of tricks and tactics they use to prevent us from getting a good look at their spots, and I’d like to share some of them with you today.

Is there even a hyena in this picture?
Darkness – it might be unfair to pin this one on the hyenas themselves. After all, they aren’t the ones that made it dark. But they ARE the ones who seem to use the darkness to their best advantage, standing just out of Maglite range in an area we can’t go offroad to see them or loping in and out of our headlights just long enough for us to take blurry, unusable photos.

"I can see... three spots. Perfect."
Palembang, don't you dare
Mud – this one is definitely a fan favorite with our study subjects, and one I will happily blame them for. There’s no worse feeling than driving towards a distant, perfectly clean hyena and watching him lower himself into a enormous mud puddle before we can ID him. You may not believe it’s possible for a hyena to look smug while rolling in gunk, but trust me, it happens.

Grass – here’s another trick that’s only partially their fault. We RAs wait anxiously for the arrival of the wildebeest every year so they’ll mow down some of the absurdly tall grass in our territories. It’s unbelievable how much a few strands of grass can obscure the spots of a hyena, and equally unbelievable how much time said hyena will choose to spend in tall grass when there’s a nice patch of bare dirt not 2 feet away.

"Are we sure this is a spotted hyena?"
Old age – it could be argued that long years of sun exposure are to blame for the fact that old hyenas’ spots fade over time, but I prefer to think it’s concentrated force of will intended only to spite us. Trying to ID ancient hyenas is a special kind of frustrating, because they might be totally clean, well-lit, and standing clear of any grass and yet still be totally un-IDable.

Well, that's helpful. Thanks. 
Sheer contrariness – “Show me a side. Please! Please show me your side. Oh come on! Just show me a few spots, that’s all I ask! Are you doing this on purpose?” That’s the mantra of an RA at wit’s end trying to get a stubborn hyena to stand at an angle displaying any spots at all. We’ve spent ridiculous amounts of time driving in slow circles around a hyena trying to see one of its sides, only to watch it rotate in time with us so we only ever get a view of its butt. 

"Okay, he's on your side of the car! No, he moved, he went around back. Quick, get a picture, get a picture! Ugh, he's around back again. Will you stand still?"
They’re also not above using our tools against us. It’s many a hyena who has spent an enjoyable 10 minutes circling the car so we never get a good solid view of its side.

With all their wily ways, it’s no wonder we all breath a sigh of relief when we come across a hyena, mud-free, in short grass and with beautifully well-defined spots. It still takes a lot of work to study spot patterns and ear damage, but at least we stand a chance against the hyenas' stubborn, magical powers.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Talek Camp's Bush Life: A - Z (Pt.2)

        Who's ready for part 2 of Talek Camp's bush life, N - Z? 


New Family: We go through a lot together living in the bush… from flood scares (to actual floods) to scaring off poisonous snakes trying to get into our tents, to deep cleaning our kitchen after primate invasions, to rushing local men to the community clinic for emergency treatment, to creating new dishes together, to playing volleyball and soccer, to dancing and singing like goons, to attending weddings and other local ceremonies together, you name it… we become a unit here in camp. 
We are a family.

Our marvelous, wondrous shower! 
Outdoor Shower: Oh, the shower. Jerry-rigged by the guys, our hot water shower is a source of refreshment and reclaims our sanity after a week or so without bathing… oops. Standing on slabs of rock, ogling at the sky above, and listening to the chatter of the birds and rustling of other critters makes every shower a relaxing, unique experience. 

Outbreaks: What would bush life be without spontaneous outbreaks of song and dance, and rashes too? On the daily we bust out a dance move or belt a tune (I am perhaps most guilty of this) to raise some spirits and energize camp a bit. Similarly, but not as pleasant, are outbreaks of rashes caused by mysterious creepy-crawlies and unknown botanical irritants, which none of us have evaded. Hurray for antibiotic cream!


P.O.L: Toilet Paper. Bless it. Because we use toilet paper for everything, we’ve dubbed it the “Paper of Life”, since without it this would be a much dirtier camp…


Quiet Time: Ideally, but not always, we try to work our booties off in the morning and early afternoon so that we can have a bit of personal, quiet time before evening observations come 1700. For me, this either means catching up on some journal entries or enjoying some distance running on the other side of the Talek River outside of the reserve.


Refrigerator (not): We’ve often dreamt of having a refrigerator here in Talek Camp, persistently jealous of Serena Camp and their blasted fridge! That said, when we do get perishables in camp (meats & cheeses!), the fact that we don’t have the ability to keep them chilled allows us to engage fully in our gluttonous ways without any guilt.


Soda: Thank some higher omnipotent power for gracing us with accessible sources of soda. I admittedly drink too much soda. I was thinking that living here in the bush would force me to cut back… wrong. Instead, we can get all the soda we want from the nearby town and it comes in glass bottles, which makes drinking it kind of sophisticated. We’re constantly hydrating ourselves with water but every once in a while a soda is just what we need for that oomph of refreshment.

Solar Panels: Our camps are completely run on solar power generated by our many solar panels. We’ve become self-proclaimed electricians, troubleshooting connectivity and battery issues while living out here. We clean our solar panels multiple times a week to make sure we're soaking up as much solar power as possible.


Time Warp: We often talk about how quickly the days, weeks, and months just rush by. It’s as if we’re in some alternate reality or time warp, where time just isn’t the same. The days mush into one long glorious Maasai Mara experience.

Here are our identification books. They have left and right side photos of every hyena we study. 
Ultrasound Printer: To stay updated on individual hyena identification, we regularly take, edit, and print photos of our study hyenas and place them in our ID books, or what we’ve named our “hyena bibles”. When we’re out on observations we use these books to confirm identifications. What’s interesting though is that we use an ultrasound printer to print these photos! Look at Erin’s recent blog post on printing photos to learn more about this important process.

This is a male vervet monkey who spends too much time watching us work.
The coloration of the male reproductive organs has fascinated me! 
Vervet Monkeys: These primate cousins of ours are hands down the sneakiest and most cunning of our non-human animal visitors in camp, so much so that I very early on started calling them “Vermin” monkeys instead of Vervet. We had this repetitive dilemma during my first months here in camp. At night, a resident porcupine would find the weak patch in the tent doors of our kitchen. This porcupine would weasel its way inside and once done causing a ruckus, had created a hole large enough for the Vervets to have their turn mixing up trouble in our kitchen…. Needless to say, spending entire days cleaning their fecal matter and urine off of every surface is not fun.


Water Runs: One of our most important responsibilities in camp is going on water runs, both for drinking water and for washing water. At least once a week we load up a car full of jerry cans and head to the oldest lodge in the Maasai Mara, Keekorok, to get roughly 300L of drinking water. We also make a trip to a nearby hot air balloon camp to retrieve about the same amount of washing water, for our dishes, cars, and tent cleaning.

A glimpse at one of our data boards, this is Talek West. 
Whiteboards: At our lab tent we have multiple white boards for multiple purposes. We have a board for our car checks, where we track the current repairs needed for each of our Toyota Land Cruisers, and we also have a board for tracking our chores. Most importantly however, we have whiteboards for our two study clans: Talek West and Fig Tree. We log all of our new hyena cubs on these boards to try and record their sex, inter-litter rank, date of birth, and date first seen. These are “working” boards and allow us to stay on top of new hyenas and gather this information as quickly as possible. 


Exe flour: Okay, okay, so Exe (pronounced “x”) flour doesn’t begin with an “x” but come on, there aren’t many applicable words that do. Chapati is undeniably and collectively one of our favorite Kenyan foods… I describe it as an amplified tortilla. They are utterly sublime and made with a brand of flour, Exe. If it wasn’t for Exe flour, our chapati addictions wouldn’t exist, so I am EXtremely (hehe) grateful that it does.


Yelling: “Dinerrrrrrrrr!” “Hatariiiiiiii!” Whether we’re yelling to each other that a meal is ready, alerting all of camp that there is some kind of danger (hatari in Swahili), or just trying to find someone, yelling within camp is all too common. It’s pretty essential in a large, widespread bush camp.


Zippers: The absence of doorknobs in my life has become quite strange. After living in a tent now for almost a year, fidgeting with zippers on our tent doors has become oddly commonplace. We’ve become professionals at replacing zippers and whizzing in and out of tents with a swish of an arm. It’ll be interesting to readjust to life with doorknobs back in the States…

Thanks for reading about some aspects of our bush life here in Talek! 
If you have any questions about how we live, don't be shy! 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Talek Camp's Bush Life: A - Z (Pt.1)

        With less than three weeks remaining of my time with the project, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect a bit on my year out here. In doing so, I decided to post this month about Talek Camp’s bush life by creating an (non-exhaustive) A to Z representation of some of the aspects that have made living in the bush so unparalleled, so here’s the first half, A – M:


Ants: Our six-legged insect-relatives live closer to us than we often realize. Hidden within rolled-up tent windows, beneath thatched floor mats, or within our boots, our ant friends (read: enemies) claimed this home before we did. It’s often a constant battle to keep them out of our tents, cars, and off our dinner table – but who really are the intruders, them or us?

Here are Talek's night guards! Steven is on the left and Lesingo is on the right. 
Askari: Our beloved night guards (askari in Swahili), Lesingo & Steven, perilously patrol camp whilst we sleep. Searching for bothersome animals (including trespassing humans and other dangerous critters) is just one of their responsibilities. They also monitor the level of Talek River that our camp is situated along just in case a flood scare was to occur. Check out these posts (1234) to read and see what happened when The Great Flood of 2015 hit Talek Camp.  Most importantly (not really, but really) they prepare hot water and chai for us to enjoy when we wake up before morning observation sessions.

Here we have a male baboon who was walking the perimeter of his troop. Gosh, can they get feisty!  
Baboons: These intelligent, free-roaming savages spend their time in camp treating our tent tarps as trampolines and glorified runways and our vegetation as a buffet. While it is adorable to see a juvenile latched ever so tightly to his or her mother’s back, it’s not as pleasant to be mindlessly walking down a camp path to then unknowingly become a moving-depository for their leftover fig fruit munchings…

We found this mama bat perched right outside our lab tent. She was encapsulating her young beneath her wing. 
Bats: The familiar “ping-ping-ping” resembling a common alarm clock is a vocalization of the local fruit bats. While they keep us awake throughout the night, they also glide effortlessly among the tent ceilings to devour moths, termites, and other flying insects, which we thoroughly appreciate. Come morning we know the bats were around, evidenced by their pellet-like feces scattered upon our lab tent table and water jug, which is not as appreciated…

On the left is a Robin Chat, and geez are they chatty! To the right is a Grey-Headed Kingfisher - striking, right? 
Birds: Most of our (visible) bush-mates (instead of roommates, get it?) are of the avian variety. For our birder friends out there, this includes visitors like: Robin Chats, Rüppell’s Long-Tailed Starlings, Common Bulbuls, Ring-Necked Doves, Little Bee-Eaters, Speckled Mousebirds, Paradise Flycatchers, Cardinal Woodpeckers, Brown Parrots, Bush Shrieks, Pygmy Kingfishers, Grey-Headed Kingfishers, Purple Grenadiers, Fire Finches, Grey Hornbills, Spectacled Weavers, Little Warblers, Siffling Cisticolas, Scaly Francolins, White-Headed Barbets, Variable Sunbirds, and Lesser Striped Swallows. The constant, whimsical chatterings of our beaked-friends and their intriguing interactions with each other make living in the bush that much more magical. 


Chai: I personally, although I think I can speak for most of us, can’t imagine my mornings without Kenyan chai. Made with fresh milk from local cows, water, tea masala, and sugar, chai is a camp staple, a necessity if you will. We have a camp saying, “Chai or Die!”, for obvious reasons… Returning to the states soon, obtaining the right balance of these ingredients for the perfect chai has become a personal mission of mine.

Ah, our wooden throne. 
Choo: Nestled within camp is our glorified outhouse, our choo. Now I am speaking for myself when I say that I’ve absolutely, whole-heartedly, enjoyed performing my natural bodily functions in an outside bathroom. I’ve always heard people joking that a person’s bathroom is their sanctum, their cherished and necessary domain, and I couldn’t agree more! Also, you can’t really knock on a tarp like you would a door to see if the choo is occupied, so here we resort to chanting a Kenyan word, hodi, meaning, “May I come in?” Walled by tarps and open to the canopy and sky, it’s safe to say I’ll miss our wooden-toilet-over-a-giant-hole-in the-ground-bathroom quite a lot.

Chores: Oh, the chores. From car checks to camp meetings, to inventories, to accounting, to computer backups, to cleaning the solar panels, there are always camp chores to be done.

Cravings: Not a day goes by that we don’t talk about some kind of craving we’re having. I’m constantly craving something cold, like some soft-serve ice cream as a prime example, while collectively we frequently discuss our yearnings for authentic Mexican dishes, favorite candy, and cereal.

The one and only reliable all-insect-killer... DOOM! 
DOOM: Let me make this very clear… We wouldn’t survive in the bush without our handy, trustworthy “all-insect-killer” product, Mortein DOOM. If you walk around camp you can find a bottle just about anywhere and in any tent. Our savior from surprise ant invasions, all too common wasp intrusions, and of course the frequent visit from a resident arachnid (and her dozens of family members), you can never be too aggressive when applying some DOOM, especially if it’s the lemon-scented variety. We are eternally grateful to the inventor(s) of this product.

Each morning graces us with a different sunrise, making those 0500 sluggish awakenings more than worth it.
Early Mornings: For morning observations we leave camp at 0530, which means we each need to wake up with enough time to realize we are awake and to get our brains in proper working order. For me, this used to mean waking up at 0430 and doing some morning exercises and stretching. From last June to present day however, that’s changed a bit… Now I wake up at a reasonable 0500 with enough time to chug some chai and prepare myself for the spotted hyena gloriousness that I’m about to behold. Long days start with early mornings, and to those we are certainly no strangers to.

Elephants: Our significantly larger mammalian relatives grace us with their presence many of evenings. Their movement is unmistakable and the fear they provoke unmatchable. We’re told immediately that elephants waltzing through camp at night are one of the top dangers to be aware of. Sporting a towering size and bone crushing weight, our tents don’t stand a chance against them.


Fresh Produce: This past year I’ve eaten better than I ever have, ever. Weekly we get fresh veggies and fruit from Talek Town and I have been thoroughly #spoiledwithfood. I’ve gorged upon too many mangoes, passion fruit, and tree tomatoes to count.

Full Disclosure: Here in camp we get extremely close to each other. I mean, we live, work and spend literally all day everyday together, how could we not? This closeness becomes apparent rather quickly, by which divulgence of our lives comes naturally. We truly do become a family.

A female giraffe who was wandering and grazing within camp. 
Giraffes:  Our vertically privileged friends roam around our camp amongst our tents, hopefully avoiding tangling themselves within our tent cables. Most mornings we know they were around by their obvious and monstrous tracks along our firebreak and trails. We joke that the giraffes are the oracles of the Mara, all-seeing and all-knowing.


Hyena Skulls: Unfortunately we occasionally find deceased hyenas that we then perform necropsies on, which include collecting tissue and organ samples and full body measurements. We also collect and flense their skull with as much precision as possible. We bring the skulls back to camp and place them in pots we have hanging from trees. We leave the fleshy skulls in the pots for several weeks letting the flies and beetles take care of all of the flesh we couldn’t get to. We return to the skulls once they’ve been completely cleaned by our insect friends and take any remaining measurements as needed.


Insect Repellant: 100% DEET? No problem. Avoiding using any insect repellant at all? No problem. I’ve found that there are two types of Fisi campers: those who apply ample amounts of repellant at all times and those who don’t use any at all. I’m one of the latter, electing to not use any sprays most of the time. For whatever reason the mosquitoes and other insects just don’t gravitate towards me – leaving my body virtually insect-bite-free! I’m certainly not complaining.


Jik: The local brand of bleach and our best friend when it comes to cleaning products. A bucket of bleach water for the dining table, our tent floors, our dishes, you name it, we’re using Jik for it!

Kierere spends many a'days resting by our lab tent. 
Kierere:  In Talek Town and other local Maasai communities, there are feral dogs running wild and living off the land. It just so happens that one of those dogs has taken a liking to Talek Camp and her name is Kierere (“Crazy” in English). To be perfectly clear though, she is NOT our pet, rather a dog that likes to visit us and who we like to brush and treat with tick & flea medicine and don’t shoo away… She comes and goes as she pleases and has certainly warmed our hearts with her charm. 
I have my very own personal kisou
Kisou: Mother always told me not to play with sharp objects but “out of sight, out of mind” … right? A kisou is a knife. A Maasai man walks around with his kisou around a belt loop, always ready to use this all-purpose tool. Purchased for just 800ksh (roughly $8.00) I use my kisou for tent repairs, lawn mowing, woodcarving, and cutting down pesky vines and Acacia branches.

Here's Talek Camp's kitchen. You may even spy Joseph, hard at work as always. 
Kitchen: Our source for all things delicious, our kitchen is situated closest to the Talek River. Joseph, Chief, and Samwell are always cooking up something yummy, creating inviting aromas that waft throughout camp. A social and culinary hub, the kitchen is the heart of camp.


Liquid Nitrogen: Whenever we collect biological samples from our hyenas (fecal, saliva, and blood most commonly) we place them in liquid nitrogen to freeze and store them. Without our liquid nitrogen tanks our samples wouldn’t be useable to our graduate students back in Michigan.


Maglites: Have you ever used a Maglite? No? They’re incredible, but also incredibly expensive. We each have our own Maglite here in camp, our eyes in the dark. They’re our responsibility and we treat them as if they were our children. When on observation sessions our Maglites are utilized as spotlights to identify and observe hyenas.

Mamas: We’ve come to learn that mamas refer to the women of a family. We have laundry mamas and milk mamas here in Talek Camp. The women of our night guards’ families alternate in coming to camp to do our laundry for us in the Talek River. They even hang our clothes on the line to dry! Also, we have mamas from the neighboring communities who bring us fresh milk from their cows everyday. We boil the milk and the guys use it to make chai and all of the delicious dishes they concoct for us.

        With that, it’s back to balancing work and leisure as I try to wrap my head around the impending reality that my time in the Maasai Mara is soon to be at an end. 
Happy Monday to all! Stay tuned for part 2: N - Z! 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science