Thursday, October 6, 2016

Three "Tails" of Life and Death

Three "Tails" of Life and Death

It’s a hard-knock life out here on the plains of the Maasai Mara. If you don't believe me, just take it from our hyena friends.

Photo credit to Erin Person. With two broken legs, Komo has learned to walk on her front legs only!
(Want to learn more about this incredible lady? Read more!)
Hyenas aren’t the only ones struggling for existence on the savanna. With hyenas, lions, crocodiles, and a multitude of other predators, life is precarious for the many herbivores that call the Maasai Mara home.

Herbivores and predators alike abound on these plains and -- especially after the recent wildebeest migration -- the savanna is littered with carcasses. However, it is quite a rarity to see a hunt in action. The other night, while out searching for hyenas, Robyn, Mike and I unexpectedly stumbled onto this rarity.

A young male lion finishes off his prey.
We stumbled onto a young male lion perched upon a wildebeest, fresh after the take-down. We watched in awe as the male lion glared at us, his kill still clutched in his jaws, his chin dripping with fresh blood.

Photo credit to Mike Kowalski. This lion's chin is soaked with wildebeest blood.
We were in our smallest vehicle, parked only 25 meters away, and had rolled down our windows to get a better look. To make things more interesting, a piece of bait (used in cognition trials for hyenas) seems to be lost in the car, so the horrendous stench (or, if you’re a lion or hyena, the enticing aroma) of rotting meat was wafting out of the open windows. We left the car running in case we needed to make a speedy getaway!

It was amazing to see a lion so soon after the thrill of the hunt. As we watched, however, we realized that the hunt wasn’t over just yet…


 Lions are ambush hunters, only capable of short, but explosive, sprints. Once they capture their prey, they suffocate it. This lion held his weight over his prey, squeezing the wildebeest’s throat inside of his powerful jaws, his large canines drawing blood. The wildebeest’s sides heaved as he struggled for breath. What was most striking to me was how calm and patient the lion was as he waited for the wildebeest to take its last labored breaths.

Soon after the hunt was truly finished, the male was joined by a flirty female, who he greeted and invited to share his kill with him.

Two lions greet over a freshly felled wildebeest carcass that will
continue to provide energy and nutrients to life around it.

Although often thought of as scavengers, hyenas are actually quite impressive hunters. Although they are not above scavenging (no different than lions), hyenas in the Mara hunt up to 95% of their own food! However, they are very different than lions in their hunting strategy. Spotted hyenas, like canines, have very large hearts, affording them impressive endurance. Rather than ambushing their prey, they run it to exhaustion; one hyena chased its prey for a record-setting 24 kilometers (almost 15 miles)! However, not every hunt is so difficult, especially not during baby season in the springtime.

Lance, a high-ranking female hyena, seized opportunity when a tiny baby topi stumbled awkwardly into the world. When we arrived on the scene, she was just beginning to devour a tiny topi calf. Although this young hyena's jaws have not yet reached adult strength, she still easily cracked through the bones and quickly gulped down half of the carcass.

Lance eagerly wolfs down her hard-earned breakfast.
Meanwhile, the mother watched helplessly from the horizon before moving on.

The now calfless topi looks back one last time from the horizon.
After devouring half of the carcass, Lance picked up her delicious breakfast and headed to the West. We followed her for what seemed like forever, wondering what she was up to. After scaring away many zebra and topi and maneuvering around some threatening buffalo, she finally arrived at her destination: a den.

Lance picks up her kill and steadily makes her away across the savannah to the den to meet her clan-mates.
She occasionally pauses to adjust her grip on the carcass.
Lance's fellow hyenas were very excited to see her, greeting her with bristled tails and loud squitters. This resulted in a great deal of excitement and, of course, aggression. Despite their efforts to convince her, Lance would only allow cub O'Malley to share her earnings.

While fending off her adult clan-mates, Lance allows young female cub O'Malley to share in feeding
on the baby topi. O'Malley excitedly races about, crawls on the ground, and squitters.
The excitement continued to escalate, and the hyenas began to chase, snap at, and bite one another. Despite Lance's attempts to keep the kill from the other hyenas, her persistent clan-mates eventually got their share.

Jolly Roger (O'Malley's mom) manages to sneak off with the baby topi when Lance isn't looking.
Just when she thinks she's gotten away with it, here comes Recluse!
Click on the video to see a game of topi tug-of-war!

We had our last glimpse into the awesome and brutal world of predator-prey interactions while driving through Happy Zebra Territory one rainy evening. The roads and tracks were too muddy for us to drive on, and we had just given up hope for seeing any hyenas that night. We were on our way back to camp when our luck changed: Chakram, a young male, darted across the road in front of us.

We quickly saw what Chakram was up to. Out of excitement, his tail shot up into the air, splaying out the long black hairs like a paintbrush. He slowed down, lowered his head, and slowly advanced toward the target of his excitement: a large zebra.

A zebra looks over its shoulder as it runs from Chakram.
The chase was on. Chakram cautiously ran after the zebra, who startled, turned tail, and ran. As the zebra ran, it stole glances over its shoulder at Chakram, who was gaining on it.

Then the zebra surprised us by stopping and turning to face Chakram. Chakram ceased to advance and instead retreated momentarily to assess the situation. The zebra took this chance to make a break for it. 

The zebra darts across the ditch with Chakram in hot pursuit.
 As the zebra darted across the road in front of us, Chakram decided that this feisty zebra wasn't worth the effort. Instead, he darted around the plains, found a nice puddle to roll in, and eventually feasted on an old carcass.

The happy zebra looks back one last time at its would-be predator.
This zebra will live to see another day in the aptly-named Happy Zebra Territory.


No comments:

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science