Thursday, June 30, 2016

For victory and for the Mara!

If it wasn’t already apparent, we RAs spend an awful lot of time together in the car (and everywhere else). That means we exhaust all your typical conversation topics pretty quickly, and move right along into the truly bizarre. One of my favorites is a topic we’ve debated many times: if you had to ride a Mara animal into battle (a la the Riders of Rohan galloping into Helms Deep), which would you choose? Obviously this is a very deep scientific question that contains a lot of nuance, so I’ve broken down some of the top contenders for your convenience.

Eland (Erin’s choice)
Intimidatingly large
Able to jump 8-10 feet in the air from a standstill. Arguably not useful for a battle scenario, but really awesome anyway
Impressive horns
Pre-equipped with tassels for that “parade armor” look
Horns are pointed directly at the rider’s face, instead of at the enemy. Could possibly be remedied by strategic placement of tennis balls at the end of the horns.
Very shy. Much more likely to flee the battle than charge into the middle of it

Giraffe (Robyn’s choice)
Excellent view of battlefield
Enemy can’t reach you
Built-in slow motion run for maximum cool factor
Enemy can’t reach you, but you can’t reach the enemy either. Long range weaponry recommended
Weirdly-shaped back. Where do you put a saddle?
If you fall, it’s a loooong way down

Waterbuck (Emily’s choice)
Super majestic
Harder to be intimidating when your steed has a heart for a nose

Baby zebra not included in battle scenario
Basically a horse. Wouldn’t even have to design a new type of saddle.
Aggressive in defense of their herd. Hopefully this would carry over to the battlefield
Notoriously difficult to tame.

Can run forever without getting tired
Built-in weaponry
Too short to comfortably ride. Enemy would probably laugh at you and your dragging toes. Actually, that might make this cycle back around to a pro again, if enemy is too busy laughing at you to properly defend themselves.

Don't let the calm demeanors fool you. They're trying to lure you into a false sense of security.

The verdict? Maybe we should stick to horses and Land Cruisers. But it’s fun to think about, isn’t it?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

EMR, signing off

I’ve been back in the States for a week now. Rediscovering what feels like my previous life has been an explosion of nostalgia and happiness. The last week has been full of reunions with friends, family, pets, old stomping grounds, unlimited internet, my car, and Panera. But all of this meant leaving behind what had become my reality: the Mara, hyenas, Land Cruisers, dust, chapattis, and African sunsets. I miss it all dearly. But while I’ve shed a few tears over leaving, I can’t help but smile because it happened and I know that I’m stronger and better and ready to face whatever comes next in my life because of the past year.

As for the re-entry process into the US, there have been some funny moments.
 1. Everything in the Schiphol Amsterdam Airport is automated – the toilets, the doors, even the trashcans. Coming straight from Nairobi, I didn’t know what to do when the trashcan just opened...

2. In a right-hand drive car, the windshield wipers are on the left side of the steering column, while turn signals are on the right. Well, when you come to the States and drive on the other side of the car, those two things are switched. Let’s just say my windshield wipers were getting a workout the first few days I drove around and needed to turn.

3. I get confused when I go outside and it’s not the same temperature as the building I was just in. I’m too used to it being hot everywhere.

4. I did a double-take the first time I saw people walking around on sidewalks. My Africa brain went, “Look out! There might be lions or hippos or buffalo!” And then I remembered the biggest animals we have around here are squirrels. 

5. The roads are like butter, it’s ridiculous. Sometimes I think I aim for the potholes so that I feel like I’m back in the Mara, dodging craters and mud pits and small cliffs.

Coming up for me, I’m starting a Wildlife Policy Internship in Bethesda, MD next week, so I’ll be staying close to home for the next few months. A good friend of mine is getting married at the end of July, and that promises many happy reunions. Beyond that, I don’t quite have a plan yet, but who knows? Maybe a return trip to Kenya will be on the list someday soon!

Best of luck to everyone still in the field and in the lab. I’ll be following all the shenanigans on Facebook and this blog – I cannot wait to see how great y’all are going to do.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Imagine, if you will, a place where you can shower indoors.  A place where you can buy chocolate and juice, go out to eat, and explore shopping malls, all without having to worry about elephants in camp or siafu (safari ants) in your bed or having to get up at 4:30 in the morning.

Escape to civilization.  Escape to Nairobi.

Robyn is excited about our new cottage in Nairobi!
About every six weeks or so, a few members of the Mara Hyena Project have to make the harrowing journey (anywhere between 6 and 12 hours long) from the Mara to Nairobi.  There we stay in a small cottage rented by the project for a few days while running various errands for camp that can only be done in the city.  We get one of the cars serviced and repaired, shop for food and supplies for Talek and Serena camps, submit research paperwork to various government branches, drop off departing research assistants or graduate students at the airport and pick up new ones.  Sometimes it seems that the to-do list is never-ending; we try to do Nairobi trips as infrequently as possible, to minimize the amount of time researchers have to spend away from camp, and as such when we do come here we try to get as much done as we possibly can in the limited time frame that we have.  Whether it's refilling tanks with liquid nitrogen for our biological samples, bringing hyena skulls to the Nairobi National Museum, or wandering around the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries trying to figure out who can write us a Letter of No Objection, there is always another task to be accomplished, another chore to be completed, another important item to buy for camp.  Sometimes the tedium of sitting in offices or making endless trips to Nakumatt (basically the Walmart of Kenya) gets to people, and they come to dread Nairobi trips, desperately yearning to see a Mara sunset again almost as soon as they leave for the city.

I am in Nairobi with Robyn right now on my first Nairobi trip, and while I certainly miss camp and the Mara, there are many perks to being in Nairobi that people don't always talk about.

Being in Nairobi gives us a break from camp, a reminder that Kenya (and the world!) is so much bigger than our beloved Mara.  We get to meet new people, explore the city, and see glimpses of what life is like for urban Kenyans.  We also get to return to civilization's amenities for a little while and enjoy treats like buying chocolate...

These objects on the table are called chocolates.  You have no idea how exciting this is.
going out to eat...

Breakfast at Java House.
and just seeing new things that we haven't before.

Above: four pictures from The Hub, a new mall in Nairobi, the biggest mall we have ever seen!
While nothing compares in our hearts to the beauty and majesty of the Mara and its wildife, it is an exciting change of pace to experience Nairobi and see how people live here.  I look forward to seeing our favorite hyenas again soon, but in the meantime I will settle for kisses from some other mammals we met here in Nairobi.

Making friends at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi.
See you soon, Fisi Camp!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Return of the lost!

Every year the Masai Mara National reserve experiences a low season in respect to tourist activity. This usually extends from late January to June, during which time the Masai Mara experiences intense long rains around April with dry periods before and after. This also results in later tall dry grasses, which makes game viewing quite difficult, and many prey species disperse to better grazing farther south, or break into smaller groups. While this year it appeared that the Mara would experience rains from December through May without much dry, tourism and prey counts were still low, and the grass has grown very high.

Hyena walking in the tall grass. 
Low season is also very slow for the Mara Hyena project. While we typically experience a cub boom earlier in the season, many of the sub-adults and adults without den dependent cubs travel further to look for game or cooling sack out spots. Many of the older cubs will also graduate at this time prior to the beginning of the great migration, some of which will not survive the graduation phase due to run ins with lions and herders. This can make things quite difficult for research assistants and graduate students that come to the field during the low season in respect to learning and remembering IDs when they first arrive. Nearly a third of the clan members may not be seen for months at a time, and spot patterns on very young cubs have a tendency to look quite different when they grow, especially when they hit what we call the shaggy stage when graduating from cub to sub-adult.

Distinct spot patterns turn into lines and smears when their fur gets long
However, this all changes when the great migration comes to the Masai Mara, bringing with it huge herds of wildebeest and zebra, as well as droves of tourists. The Mara is famous for this annual event, and people will come from all over the world to watch the wildebeest and zebra cross at the Mara River, and to watch the great predators of Africa hunt their prey.

This crossing actually started in the Mara River Clan's territory and ended in the South Clan's territory in 2013. 
Cheetah from last week walking among some Thompson's gazelles in the Talek West Hyena Clan territory.
Photo credit Lily Johnson-Ulrich  
Large male lion posing on an old termite mount in the South Hyena Clan territory.
With the return of the large number of prey to the Mara ecosystem, the Mara hyena project also sees a return of many of their hyenas that have not been seen in months, and this year has been no different. The early arriving herds of wildebeest and zebra, that usually proceed the great migration of the massive herds by a few weeks to a month, have already arrived in our Talek West clan territory.

Zebras gathering on Lone Tree plain in Talek West territory
Members of the Talek West clan devouring a wildebeest
Photo credit Lily Johnson-Ulrich
The return of high density prey is also resulting in numerous hunts and carcass sessions where many of our rarely seen hyenas show up after we thought they may have been dead or missing, including cubs that graduated during low season. Needless to say this is both very exciting and very confusing, even for those that know the clan well. Favorite cubs you watched grow up and then disappear during their graduation phase of den independence return looking so big and shaggy with sub-adult fur that they barely match their ID photos, and many of the sub-adults not seen for ages will also begin appearing at den sessions making pests of themselves attempting to play with small cubs that are trying to nurse or sleep.

Top Left: "Cinnamon", now correctly named Miguel Cabrera, is now finally showing up at the communal den
Top Right: Tinder, thought dead earlier this year, is now a star in Lily Johnson-Ulrich's cognition box trials
Bottom: Pisces, a low ranking sub, attempting to pick up Urchin, a high ranking cub, when he just wants to cuddle with ARES
While we rejoice in seeing some of our favorite hyenas again, the beginning of the high season also requires a mental reset regarding which spots on which hyenas we are likely to see on any given day, and the full migration is still to come. Soon the plains will be black with the huge herds of wildebeest, and the grass will be mowed down by the voracious herbivores, bringing in even more predators and tourists. Stay tuned for the excitement!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Elephants, Topi, and Mongooses

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

First off, a topi snorting with alarm. This topi was within 50 meters of Houdini Den (currently the home of several hyena cubs) in Happy Zebra territory...and didn't much like the situation.

Second, some elephant vocalizations. These elephants were at least 500 meters from where we were at Houdini Den, but the sound carried!

And finally, an influx of banded mongooses at Kit Kat Den (home of 7+ hyena cubs) in South territory. These small fierce carnivores (the closest relatives of hyenas!) make absolutely adorable noises.

Thanks for tuning in!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Studying Hyena Cognition

Cypher, Survey, and Cryptic 

Hi, I’m Lily. I’m currently a graduate student in the Holekamp Lab and I just arrived at Talek Camp in the Maasai Mara about a week ago to start collecting data for my dissertation. I was here two years ago as an RA in Serena Camp on the other side of the park.

For my dissertation I’m studying hyena cognition. I’m interested in the evolution of intelligence and I’m examining the social, environmental, and individual factors that affect behavioral flexibility, which is thought to be a hallmark of intelligence. Behavioral flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Innovation, the ability to invent a novel behavior or solve a novel problem is a key aspect of flexibility and intelligence because innovation helps animals (including humans!) adapt to change.

Spotted hyenas have complex social systems (as you’ve probably heard) and also live in an extremely diverse array of habitats due to their ability to adapt to local conditions. Both of these factors, complex sociality and environmental variability, are thought to select for intelligence.

The spotted hyenas that we study live in two different parts of the park. In Serena, where I was an RA, the park is highly regulated and tourism, cattle grazing, and poaching are strictly controlled. In Talek, we study hyenas that live on the border of the (unfenced) park. Their territory actually overlaps the growing Maasai town of Talek. Talek hyenas regularly encounter tourists (due to the proximity to lodges and Talek gate) and grazing cattle. Our behavioral research has shown that they have altered their behavior in response to this anthropogenic disturbance. This suggests a high degree of behavioral flexibility in response to the high degree of variability that Talek hyenas are encountering. I hope to quantify this using my cognitive testing apparatus aka the multi-access box.

Since Talek hyenas are regularly encountering changing and novel conditions I predicted that they will be better at solving a novel foraging problem that my multi-access box represents. Spotted hyenas eat everything from “termites to elephants” as Dr. Holekamp says so figuring out how to get food from inside the multi-access box shouldn’t be too hard.

Wrath was a huge fan of the box. 

The multi-access box is a metal box about 16”x16”. It has four “solutions” on each of the four sides by which hyenas may obtain food. Each solution requires a different motor behavior to open. For example, on one side of the box is a drawer that has to be pulled open while on the other side is a push flap that has to be pushed inward. All solutions open to the same interior of the box.

Last night and this morning I started doing familiarization trials with the box where I take the top off so that the hyenas can get the food inside without using one of the four solutions. This way they learn not to be afraid of the box and learn to associate it with food. Food in this case is either milk powder (our hyenas are becoming milk powder junkies!), popcorn, or meat.

Studying the evolution of intelligence in hyenas is super fun, but it also contributes to a very important body of research on human intelligence. We know that intelligence is way more than just genes! Though it does have a genetic component, there is no single gene that can explain someone's IQ and research shows a very strong interaction between genes and your environment. When I say environment, I mean both prenatal environment and the environment you grow up in. Things like socioeconomic status can have a huge impact on IQ. Trying to understand the social and environmental factors that influence someone's intelligence helps us understand how to create environments that foster creativity and innovation in places like schools and the work place! This way, we can help everyone to reach their full potential and help create new generations of scientists and innovators. 

Studying the myriad factors that influence intelligence in humans is complex, as we no longer live in "natural" habitats. By studying when, where, and why spotted hyenas can innovate and be flexible I can take a step backwards to try and understand the ancestral environments that favored these traits. This kind of research lays the ground work for studies in humans and results in a deeper understanding of where human intelligence comes from and why we possess some of the most remarkable cognitive abilities of any animal on the planet. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Playing Favorites

Good grief, where did this year go?! I am trying to wrap my head around the fact that in 3 short weeks, Kenya will be in my rear-view mirror.

For my last blog post in the Mara, I thought I’d focus on the hyenas; after all, they’re the reason I’m out here. I’m guessing that my presence was nothing noteworthy in their world (what’s another human in another car, right?), but they sure have left a mess of hyena paw-print impressions on my heart. While I will always love them all collectively, there are a few individuals that I’m dreading saying goodbye to. Every RA has different favorites for various reasons, but these are some of mine. I will miss them immensely when I go.

Where’s the Goat? (WTG)
WTG, or Goat as we call him, is a Northie and has gotten so big since we first discovered him as a tiny little thing. What Goat lacks in brains and cleverness, he makes up for in spirit and curiosity. At the den, he’s usually the odd one out, a bit bigger than most of the other cubs. Still wanting to play but not quite sure how to join in, he alternates between playing and standing there watching the cubs play like the adorable awkward third wheel that he is. Once, he stole a bone the other cubs were playing with, and I’m pretty sure he surprised himself; he ran a few steps, looked around unsure of what to do next, and then just sacked-out while the other cubs were trying to figure out where the bone had gone. Goat’s might not be that smart, but he’s one of our most lovable hyenas.

Toronto (TORO)
We have this tradition in FisiCamp where we pick ourselves a hyena boyfriend/girlfriend, and mine is Toro. Why? Well, he has a really cool fish pattern on one side that I’ve always liked, but beyond that, I have to say it was just an instant connection. He’s not around all that much – with his hunting and social sniffing and what not – so it’s been a long distance thing. But I still love him and am always excited to see him when we do.

Why is the Rum Gone? (RUMG)
I don’t really know why I like RumGone so much. Maybe because he’s got some absolutely gorgeous spots, or maybe because he’s super playful for a fully grown hyena and that’s one of my favorite things to see. Plus his name is pretty sweet, I think.

Mandrake (MDRK)
Ever since she was a little black cub, MDRK has been the romp-iest, most playful, rambunctious cub I’ve ever known. Erin likes to say she’s our resident pinball – running around wildly and bouncing off other cubs in the process. That has not changed once bit since. She’s got spunk this one, and I love it.

Toothless (THLS)
We only found Toothless a few months ago, back in February when we found the Happy Zebra den, but man, did she quickly become one of my all-time favorites. I loved her ginger hair and prominent mohawk from the start, but we soon learned she was also quite  curious and playful as anyone. She used to be a little ball of fury as well, bite-shaking anyone within reach during an egg trial, which was sometimes mean but also pretty funny to see all that aggression in such an adorable package.


Do I really have to leave these guys behind?! But it's not goodbye just yet! I still have 3 weeks to soak up as much Kenya as I can, and I have one final blog post to write later in the month. See everyone then!


Michigan State University | College of Natural Science