Wednesday, September 28, 2016


The shorter of our two rainy seasons decided to rear its head in full force the other day. As a consequence, we poor researchers in Talek have been confined to camp for the past 5 days for fear of getting stuck in seemingly endless pools of mud. Among the best things about this time of year however are all the miniature carbon copies of our favorite animal species which have started to pop up all around the Mara. In anticipation of the greater abundance of food and resources the rains are to bring, many animals choose this time of year to have their offspring. While it's certainly an interesting phenomenon from a biological standpoint, for us dear Fisi campers it also means lot and lots of baby pictures! So without further ado, I'd like to show you some of the best ones we've seen. Enjoy!
We started seeing elephant moms with their babies around June/July
African crowned cranes and their chicks

Rare sighting of a young water buck in Serena!
PC Mike Kowalski
PC Lily J-U

Wildebeest calves are born primarily during the long rainy season, and will migrate with
their mothers and the rest of the herd north to the Mara River as the dry season begins.
PC Mike Kowalski

Zebra are born with a light brown overcoat to their black stripes.
In general, the browner a zebra is, the younger it is!
PC Mike Kowalski
And of course, what would a baby pictures post be without some shots of our dear Talek (and Serena!) hyenas? Spotted hyenas aren't limited to a certain time of year when it comes to giving birth, so there are new additions to our clans all the time! Here are some of the most recent.

Adonis, head of our KCM group, had two cubs in early July. Welcome Risk and Clue!
Here is Buenos Aires (head of Main Doc, our largest hyena group) with her cub Hertz

And here are some of the cubs on the Serena side! This photo was taken
 at South clan's den, where currently about a dozen young cubs reside.

BONUS: These photos were taken when we visited the Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. These guys might not belong to the Mara specifically, but it was still really cool to see how the Kenyan Wildlife Service cares for them before re-releasing them into the wild!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Moments of Wonder

Obs 5:30 am – 9:00 am
Write up transcriptions and complete chores
Personal time, dinner if you are in Serena
Obs 5:00 pm – 8:30 pm
Dinner if you are in Talek

You would think that the days would slowly begin to blend together, and at times they do. I have frequently forgotten what day of the week it is, unless I am giving a talk or going to market day. However, while the days may blend together, they are never the same. Not a single day has gone by in the past eight months where something hasn’t made me stop for a few seconds to appreciate where I am. It is not always something big, like watching a group of fully grown hyenas play romping like a group of little cubs, but when I have the chance I try to find a way to share.


The Masai Mara has been referred to as the jewel of the Africa’s game parks for good reason. The large savannas and array of micro-ecosystems supported by two rainy seasons allows for an abundance and diversity of wildlife that is unrivaled in most of the continent. This is one of the many reasons why tourists and research teams, like ourselves, the Mara Lion Project, the Mara Cheetah Project, and the Mara Water project flock to the area. (Though, we have certainly been here the longest at 28 years!!) It is also something that provides research assistants, graduate students, and even professors memories that last a lifetime.

Elands (Taurotragus oryx)
Elands are normally very shy, and will bolt when trucks like ours come near.
This beautiful individual calmly fed within 10 m of my truck without showing any urge to run.
Black Rhinos (Diceros bicornis)
Its rare for us to encounter rhinos, even though we are out daily.
We do our best to let park managers know how often we sight them for population measures
Elephants (Loxodonta africana)
These animals are as majestic as they are intimidating.
I've always preferred to see them along the horizon, rather than outside my tent in the dark.
Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)
At this point in the season its next to impossible to miss these.
The great migration season is starting to trail off, but we still count thousands of them monthly
Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta)
Our lives revolve around these wonderful animals.
They have been called, ugly, mangy and all manner of foul names.
However, the more time you spend with them the more you can recognize their unique beauty

Sunrises and Sunsets

Sunsets and sunrises in the Mara remind me so much of the skies in my home state of New Mexico that my first blog this year was dedicated to the comparison. It is no surprise that the Mara and New Mexico seem so similar, as they share comparable elevations, can both be quite arid at times, are both results of geologically recent volcanic rifts and eruptions, and at one point even shared comparable fauna. Of course, to know this about the American southwest one would have to look at fossil records. We once had American cheetahs, mastodons, and many other species you would expect to see on an East African grassland (but never any bone-cracking hyaenids!). Many of these species went extinct not long ago due to changing climates, and competition with early humans. This connection between the two systems is always brought back to me when I watch the skies, reminding me how fragile this ecosystem is.

This shot was taken while I was having a nice sit with the oldest hyena on record, Navajo.
She will be turning 24 this November, and is still going strong.
I had just finished my morning coffee while observing cub behavior when I turned to this seen.
The wildebeest were apparently unaware that there were 20 hyenas denning here.
The evening was shaping up to be a very slow, dusty and hot game drive.
I had only seen a few jackals out wandering, and I was so focused I almost missed this.
Thankfully, I had stopped to scan the grass for hyenas when I realized what was happening.
This was from one of my last obs in Serena before heading back to the US for a bit.
I was intent on finding an active den to observe moms interaction with their cubs and peers..
Thankfully, when I turned off the main road I was blinded by this scene.

New Life

Due to the nature of my research I am able to spend a great deal of time with young animals as they mature. This means every morning and evening in the field I seek out situations were cubs are playing, nursing, learning and generally being extremely cute. It's what gets me out of bed each morning, even when I've earned a morning in, and what keeps me out late enough that I have to set an alarm so that I leave the den in time to make it to camp for curfew. [The rangers in Serena like us to be back close to 8 pm, because they are tracking poachers, and don't want to accidentally track us]. This means hours of comedic and cute antics of cubs, sub-adults that want to play with the cubs, and mothers either playing or being annoyed by the activity at the den.

This is Buenos Ares (BUAR) with her cub Hertz (HRTZ).
HRTZ was just under a week old when this photo was taken based on ears and facial markings
BUAR still had to lift HRTZ out of the den for her to nurse as she could barely walk
This is either Lake Toba (TOBA) or Kapuas River (KAPU), twins of JAVA
The twins are three weeks old here, but they still don't have distinct markings to tell them apart yet
These cubs are around four months old, and have enough spots to identify them.
When that stand still! The cubs of the South Clan cohort are notoriously playful.
They rarely slow down for more than a minute, and they love piling together to wrestle.
Every once in a while cubs just want to cuddle with their mom and nurse.
Grace O'Malley (OMLY) had an exhausting morning playing before curling up with mom
Not a hyena!
We recently found an area in our territory where some black backed jackals a denning
The pups are getting old enough now that they are learning to hunt, and are fun to observe. 

I hope this photo journey helped you see what we see, and understand why we do what we do. I encourage you to come out to the Mara to see these wonders for yourself. If you want to learn more about conservation of this area please check out the websites below.

From New Jersey to Maasai Mara

Greetings Fisi Blog Readership! I happen to have the honor of calling myself Michael Brogna Kowalski, but you may just refer to me as a regular, ordinary Mike.  I’m the other new fisi research assistant in the Serena Camp/Mara Triangle half of the project, with my partner in crime research being Olivia, whom you most delightfully met yesterday (see her post here).  Hopefully over the course of the next year, I will be able to supply you with hours of entertainment from science-y, intriguing, and inspiring – but most of all adorable – blogposts detailing the going-ons of the project and the Mara (fingers crossed!).  Let’s start with who I am and how I arrived at this very moment in space-time over the course of my short, adventurous life.

A young Michael exploring Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
I was essentially born being amazed and bewildered by the natural world around me.  My grandmothers’ bungalow at the Jersey Shore was really what sparked my practical, scientific interest however.  It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I learned how to swim before I could even run in a coordinated fashion and I spent many afternoons snorkeling around in my lagoon with a host of fishing nets capturing whatever I could possibly get my hands on – even the much maligned and feisty Atlantic Blue Claw Crab.  Much to my mother’s chagrin shrimp, crabs, jellyfish, ctenophores, isopods, snails, algae, algae-eaters, flounder, silversides, and a score of minnows were presented daily in hopes of appeasing her.  These offerings were most often met with a “You’re making the house smell!” from my grandmother and a “Put them back honey, they need water to breath.” from my mother, but they’ve always supported me in all my endeavors so I can’t complain.  Other kids played video games and watched Saturday-morning cartoons, while I ran around swamps catching snakes, ate some dirt (literally), and watched PBS’s Nature on Sundays at 8PM.  Unfortunately, my family has always been somewhat financially challenged so I couldn’t visit all of the amazing ecosystems I saw on TV.  Day trips were taken around the Tri-State Area to various parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but these could not satiate my desire to travel to the marvels of the natural world, such as the Amazon rainforest or African savannahs.  Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I found myself trapped in a holding pattern and proceeded to hibernate until I mercifully reached my college years. 

One of the male lions (Panthera leo) who guards the eastern gate of Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
I acquired my Bachelor’s degree at Boston University (graduating May 2015) – majoring in Biology, specializing in Ecology & Conservation, and minoring in Marine Science.  My mindset going through college was to study abroad as often as I could and work in as many labs as I could wriggle my way into.  Studying abroad was actually the easier of the two to accomplish -given incredulous tuition fees associated with BU, it was actually cheaper to get credits and practical experience abroad.  I first left the United States as a sophomore, Spring 2013, to participate in Boston University’s Tropical Ecology Program.  This took place at the Universidad de San Francisco De Quito in Ecuador and we got to perform field work in the Andes mountains, coastal dry forest, Galapagos Islands, and Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon (bar none - the most biodiverse ecosystem/park in the world).  In the summer of 2014, I travelled to Tanzania with the School for Field Studies to study African wildlife for the first time, as well as the socioeconomic and human side of conservation. I was fortunate enough to visit Lake Manyara, Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti National Parks.  Lastly, my senior fall semester I participated in the Boston University Marine Semester to fulfill the requirements for my Marine Science minor.  During this block-style semester, I got to work with NOAA in Stellwagen Seabank on marine megafauna, evaluate seas star visual preferences in a sensory laboratory at the MBL in Wood’s Hole, and carry out a sponge metabolome study in the mangroves of Turneffe Atoll in Belize.  

A Golden-mantled Tamarin (Saguinus tripartitus) captures a grasshopper in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
 In terms of laboratory research assistant positions at BU, I worked in three labs: Dr. Tom Kunz’s bat lab analyzing 3D thermal emergence footage, Dr. Adrien Finzi’s terrestrial biogeochemistry lab determining the carbon, nitrogen, and water isotopic signatures of plant tissues and the effect of transpiration on global climate change, and in the BU Marine Program lab maintaining all of the structural systems and the health of the various fish, crustaceans, corals, and plants involved in the experiments.  I also did some research on hermit crabs (Pagurus longicarpus) in the BUMP lab for my senior thesis, evaluating this species' sociality, whether or not they preferred to live with familiar or unfamiliar conspecifics, and if this could have an overarching impact on population structure and genetics.  I ultimately came away from my four years spent in Boston incredibly interested in mammalian behavioral ecology. 

A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) surfacing above the Ikaria Trench in the eastern Aegean Sea 
I had no intentions of slowing down post-graduation so over the past year I participated as a field research assistant with several organizations.  From July–September 2015, I studied the influence of anthropogenic acoustics on marine mammal abundance, diversity, and behavior in the eastern Aegean Sea (Greece) with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation.  From October 2015–March 2016, I worked with the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program to monitor populations of primates and nesting sea turtles on Bioko Island (Equitorial Guinea).  My last position took me to Buton Island (Indonesia) from June–August 2016, to educate college students on bat ecology and collect data on bat diversity and abundance with a British NGO known as Operation Wallacea.  Now I find myself back in east Africa studying the behavior of large mammalian carnivores – a place I’ve always dreamt of working, a taxon that I’ve always dreamt of studying, and a subject that I’ve always been truly amazed and fascinated with.  This is in every essence of the phrase: a dream come true, and I intend on utilizing every moment of this wonderful opportunity.

A leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) returning to sea after nesting in Gran Caldera Scientific Reserve, Bioko
Unfortunately, the constraints of time and space do not permit me to further elaborate on these projects within the confines of this blog post.  In fact, I’ve probably come across as a self-indulgent, supercilious rambler.  However, if any readers are alumni of certain programs or you just generally want to know more about something I’ve worked on in the past, then by all means, drop a question or some general love in the comments section.  I’d be happy to chat about anything really!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Arrival at Fisi Camp!

Jambo! Jina langu ni Olivia.
(Swahili for, “Hello! My name is Olivia.”)
This week, I joined the other fisi (hyena) researchers at one of our two field sites.

Upon entering college and selecting a major, many young adults are forced to hastily make one of the biggest decisions of their life: “What do I want to do for the rest of my life?” I am very lucky that I never had to make this decision. For me, studying animal behavior was never a choice; it has always simply been a part of who I am. I still remember the day I decided to become a zoologist. I was only four or five, and (as per usual) I was telling my mom about all the different animals I wanted to see or touch. She said, “Okay, so you want to be a zoologist.” I sounded it out – “Zo-…-ol-…-ogist. Yeah, I wanna be that!” I would spend the rest of my childhood playing in the woods, looking for animal tracks as I pretended to be a zoologist.

A career center course at Potter Park Zoo (Lansing, Michigan) allowed me my first up-close experience with exotic animals. Later, as a zoology student at Michigan State University, I worked, volunteered, and interned at Potter Park Zoo for four years, and worked in research labs for two years. Then, I did something that my Spartan friends may never forgive me for – I became a “Wolverine.”

As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Holekamp on my master’s thesis. We worked together to investigate a very mysterious animal: the striped hyena.

Many people that live alongside hyenas may not even recognize that there are different species. (Maybe you didn’t even know there were different hyena species until just now!) The family Hyaenidae is small, but incredibly diverse.

The first species of the family Hyaenidae is the aardwolf (Proteles cristata). Aardwolves are small and eat only insects. A male and female share a territory that they fiercely defend against would-be intruders.


The second species is the well-known spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Although they get a bad reputation for being scavengers, these intelligent and powerful animals actually hunt 65% of their own food, on average (95% in the Maasai Mara!). They also have the largest social groups of any land carnivore. (Step aside, lions, there’s a new kid in town!)


The third Hyaenidae species is the brown hyena (Parahyaena brunnea). These beautiful hyenas are a little smaller than a spotted hyena and have a long mane down their back. These hairs will stand on end when the brown hyena feels threatened, making it appear larger! Brown hyenas feed on scraps and carcasses (carrion), and they forage for these scraps alone. However, they meet up with their other group mates at communal dens. Groups average about ten brown hyenas.

Source: theworldofanimals.proboards,com

The fourth and final member of the family Hyaenidae is the mysterious striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena). They are very difficult to study, because they are rare and travel alone at nighttime over rough terrain. Like its closest relative, the brown hyena, striped hyenas have a mane and forage for carrion alone. They are traditionally described as solitary, but in a 2006 study, Aaron Wagner observed up to four striped hyenas resting together!


For my master’s thesis, we sought to shed light on the social behavior of the striped hyena. We focused on “pasting,” a scent-marking behavior in which a hyena squats, turns its anal sac inside out, and does a charming little dance to smear "paste" (white goo) onto a stalk of grass:

Image captured by one of our sneaky camera traps!

The reason we chose to investigate pasting is that even though we may not see two hyenas interact with our eyes or hear it with our ears, they could still be communicating.

What did we find? Although striped hyenas appear to be solitary and territorial in some locations, our results suggested that in other locations, they may actually “tolerate” each other’s presence in other areas. This is the first step in the evolution of social groups!

What else did we find? We found a mother and her adult daughter raising their cubs at the same den! Three generations under one “roof.”

At a den site, an adult striped hyena licks the muzzle of a nursing mother.

With school behind me, I couldn’t be happier to join the other fantastic fisi researchers in the Maasai Mara. As I type this, the air is electric with the sounds of dozens of birds and insects. The branches outside my tent crackle under the weight of passing ungulates and a lion roars in the distance, advertising his presence. I cannot wait to get to know the hyenas here in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Trouble with The Lion King

I recently watched Walt Disney's animated movie, The Lion King, here in camp with my Kenyan family.  The last time I had seen The Lion King was many years ago, and it was a surreal and strange experience to see it again after meeting the real-life counterparts of many of the African animals it portrays.
Mufasa from The Lion King.  (c) Disney
An actual lion I saw in the Maasai Mara.
When I was a kid, The Lion King was one of my favorite movies.  And I was not alone.  For the year it came out in theaters, 1994, The Lion King was the highest-grossing film at the box office.  WORLDWIDE!  It enchanted audiences of all ages around the globe with a beautifully-illustrated tale about talking animals on the savannah, in which some noble lions and their friends fight the forces of evil.  Unfortunately, one of the forces of evil the heroes fight is a group of wicked hyenas.

Banzai, Shenzi, and Ed from The Lion King.  (c) Disney
Like many people, I was first introduced to hyenas through The Lion King... which is too bad, because it got pretty much everything wrong.  Below, I list some myths The Lion King spread about hyenas and explain why they are incorrect.

1. Hyenas are stupid.

(c) Disney
The lion villain of The Lion King, Scar, calls his hyena cronies things like "idiots", "thick", "fool"[ish], and "vacant", describing their "powers of retention" as "wet as a warthog's backside".

In reality, spotted hyenas are very intelligent!

They can solve complex cognitive puzzles.  As Lily Johnson-Ulrich described in previous blog posts (here and here), spotted hyenas exhibit "inhibitory control" (self-restraint), behavioral flexibility, and, as we've seen from their successes with Lily's multi-access box, an ability to solve novel foraging problems.  All of these traits are signs of general intelligence.

A spotted hyena investigating Lily's multi-access box.  This box is a complicated tool for assessing hyena cognition, designed to test whether a hyena can figure out novel solutions to a problem in order to acquire food.  Several of our hyenas in the Mara have passed the test!

Spotted hyenas also have remarkable social intelligence, similar to that of baboons.  A spotted hyena can keep track of the (typically within the range of 6 to 90!) other hyenas in her clan: who they are, their relationships with each other, and her own place in the dominance hierarchy of the clan in relation to everyone else.  How spotted hyenas navigate all these different relationships is astounding, especially to an introvert like me who sometimes has trouble keeping track of even a handful of new faces and names.

Spotted hyenas live in large social groups called clans.  Each hyena has to learn its place in the structure of the group, and how it should behave around each of the other members of its clan.  Here, the two hyenas without collars are behaving submissively toward the collared hyena, who is higher ranking in the clan than they are (and they know it!).

Clearly, despite what Scar may have told you, it is not the case that "the lights are not all on upstairs" in the brains of hyenas.

2. Hyenas are nothing but lowly scavengers.

(c) Disney
In The Lion King, Scar feeds his hyena minions a zebra haunch, which they eagerly consume.  It is implied that the hyenas are incapable of hunting for themselves.  Scar says to them, "You won't get a sniff without me!", insinuating that without the help of lions, the real hunters, hyenas would not be able to eat.

Spotted hyenas, though, are excellent hunters.  In fact, they kill 60 to 95 percent of the food they eat themselves.  They are very flexible hunters, too, able to catch and consume everything from termites to elephants.

Above video (sorry if it's hard to see; you might have to zoom in on your browser to spot the hyenas!): some of our spotted hyenas test chasing wildebeests, trying to figure out who might be their next meal.  They obviously work for a living!

Furthermore, lions steal from hyena kills MORE OFTEN than hyenas steal from lions!  So really, Scar's "minions" would more likely have been the ones catching food for him!

3. Hyenas are ugly.

(c) Disney

This one may be more of a subjective, rather than a factual, point, but...

I want you to look into Kerri Strug's eyes and tell her that she's ugly.

Or this cub's eyes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so your opinion may differ from mine, but I personally do not think hyenas are ugly.  Also, lions have their bad hair days, too.

4. Hyenas are ecologically damaging.

After hyenas move into the homeland of the lions of The Lion King, the landscape is reduced to a barren wasteland.

(c) Disney
But in the real world, the presence of spotted hyenas in an ecosystem is a positive thing.

Spotted hyenas consume carcasses and even bones, removing detritus from a landscape and thereby helping to keep it clean and healthy.  When they do this, they may also help reduce the spread of diseases in their prey populations.  As a top predator, it is likely that spotted hyenas also help to maintain the genetic health of their prey populations, by eliminating weaker, or otherwise unhealthy, animals.

The Mara ecosystem would be incomplete without hyenas roaming through it.
In addition, spotted hyenas may be a great indicator species for monitoring ecosystem health.  Since spotted hyenas are highly adaptable generalists who can adjust to human disturbance and a range of other variable environmental conditions, significant changes in spotted hyena populations in an area could reflect significant changes in the ecosystem itself, which might indicate environmental problems that will affect other species of animals.

In short, spotted hyenas do not create wastelands.  Instead, they help to maintain ecosystem health, and could also help us to monitor it.

5. Hyenas are all alike.

In the most famous scene featuring hyenas in The Lion King, a song called "Be Prepared", huge ranks of hyenas march together as a massive army, and they all look and act identically, like toy soldiers made in the same mold on an assembly line.

(c) Disney
However, after observing spotted hyenas for myself, I can safely say that each hyena I've met is a distinct individual.  Some are bold and curious.  Some are shy and spooky.  Some are great mothers, and some are terrible mothers.  Some are playful, and some snap at others who try to play with them.

Some have reddish-orange fur.  Some have silvery fur.  Some have tan fur.  Some have blond fur.  Some have blackish brown fur.  Some have dark spots and some have faint spots, and no two hyenas have the same spot pattern.

TAMI, a pale blond subadult spotted hyena.
MUKI, a darker-furred subadult spotted hyena.
Every hyena is unique, just like every person is unique.  And that's intraspecies variation alone - variation within the spotted hyena, the species we study and the species I describe in the other parts of this post.  There are three other living species of hyenas in addition to the spotted hyena: the aardwolf, the brown hyena, and the striped hyena, and they all look and behave differently and have very different strategies for survival.  As you can see, there's a whole WORLD of hyenas out there, far beyond the shallow and inaccurate caricature in The Lion King!
After reading this post, you may say, "Okay, Amy, I get it, but it's just a MOVIE.  A CARTOON, no less.  Relax!"

But whether we acknowledge it or not, the media has a powerful influence on our lives, affecting everything from what we wear and what we eat to the products we buy and even how we vote.  And, as I've discussed, it has an effect on which animals we revere and which we despise.  The Lion King was, and still is, an incredibly popular film, so it has had a profound impact on our culture for decades.  It did a great disservice to hyenas by encouraging people to perceive them in such a negative, and flagrantly untrue, light.  It's time we start to turn those perceptions around.

Please share this with everyone you know who has ever watched The Lion King, and help change people's minds about hyenas.  Thank you!


The Lion King by Walt Disney Co.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science