Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mekelle's Urban Hyenas

Hello, if you're new to the blog I'm a graduate student studying hyena cognition. I'm currently in Mekelle, Ethiopia to study a population of urban hyenas. Previous blog post: http://msuhyenas.blogspot.com/2017/02/urban-hyenas-in-ethiopia.html

This is the first update on the urban hyenas of Mekelle. Robyn and I have been testing hyenas at two sites on the outskirts of Mekelle. One is near a private high school along a road that the hyenas commute along every evening on their way into the city. The other site is at a landfill where a different group of hyenas forage. So far we've documented over 50 unique individuals by the road. After a few nights at the landfill we dropped it as a study site because they hyenas are busy foraging on their own and weren't very interested in the MAB.

The urban hyenas are completely nocturnal and are also afraid of white light. Therefore, we've been using IR spot lights and IR sensitive camcorders to observe and record them. We have to keep extremely quiet while we're sitting in the car. 

About half the time this is what we observe: 

But eventually the MAB tends to get really busy and it gets hard to keep track of everyone. It seems like these hyenas are really gregarious compared to the Mara hyenas, there's very little aggression over the food in the MAB. 

Things were pretty quiet at our Landfill sessions:

Radio, an adorable subadult, feeds from the MAB.

Some excited lope arrivers scare off Radio, a subadult who's fed from the MAB several times.

Koala is a really nervous subadult. Most of the subadults we've seen are fairly bold and many have eaten from inside the MAB but Koala just can't quite bring himself to contact it. 

Grizzly is definitely the gnarliest hyena I have ever seen. She looks like a really tough gal who's been through some crazy stuff. 

Males here are just like males in the Mara.. they'll aggress unprovoked on females when the opportunity arrises! This behavior is called baiting and male hyenas tend to do it more often when female hyenas are receptive which suggest some role in relation to mating. Here Copperhead bites Heron's leg while she's distracted investigating the box. 

Moose, an adult female, feeds from the MAB.

We nicknamed this guy Squitter-Face during this trial. Eventually I named him Wombat,  but he was easy to spot by his almost non-stop shrill squittering. Squittering is vocalization usually emitted by cubs and subadults towards their mother to elicit her to feed them.

Thermal camera footage from the landfill. I use a thermal camera to observe hyenas who are not within 5m of the MAB. Once they enter 5m we give them a "trial" and start filming them with the IR spotlights and cameras.

Robyn and I have also noticed that these urban hyenas all seem to be quite rotund... apparently they're getting a lot to eat here. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Sacred Forest of the Lost Child

Fisi camp has gone mobile everyone.  Olivia and I recently took a vacation from Maasai Mara (as if this is ever something that is needed) and travelled east up to the edge of the Nguruman escarpment until we reached Naimina Enkiyio Forest.  This forest is named after a young Maasai girl who was taking care of her family’s cattle.  As legend has it, some of the calves wandered off into the forest so the girl pursued them to return the vagrants to the herd. The calves returned home without her.  Family members and a host of Moran (the warrior class of Maasai society) entered the forest to search for her, but she was never seen again.  Naimina Enkiyio is an incredibly sacred cultural site to the Maasai, in sight of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Mountain of God (an active volcano in Tanzania).   No permanent structures are permitted to be built in the forest, cattle only graze in the forest during droughts when there are no alternatives, and the forest is protected not by law but by the forest Maasai communities who guard its few traversable entrances with great pride.  The communities themselves are some of, if not the most, traditional Maasai societies remaining in Kenya today.  Many rituals and customs long forgotten, are still practiced today as they were hundreds of years ago.  As you can imagine, it is a very special place to many and we felt incredibly honored to be permitted, as complete outsiders, to experience this magical and enchanted forest.

Spider monkeys and gibbons make swinging through canopies a beautiful form of art, almost a graceful dance, the black-and-white guereza on the other hand, dives through the canopy with reckless abandon.  They are incredibly athletic and coordinated however, as they often fully release themselves from branches remaining in freefall for several meters, but almost never missing their mark on the completion of their leap.

In terms of ecology, Naimina Enkiyio is an old-growth cloud forest dominated by cedar and podocarpus trees booming to 40m in height, with the occasional strangler fig thrown in.  The original expanse remains intact and the forest has never been logged in the history of mankind, existing as it has eons ago.  Resting between 2,400-2,800m in elevation, clouds will often work their way down the steep valleys shrouded with swamps, along the steep ravines, and over the sandstone-crested ridges called kiwanjo in kiswahili, while mosses, orchids, and lichens dangle tree branches and carpet rocks throughout the forest.  Water is abundant and can be sipped straight out of the multitude of streams and brooks that crisscross Naimina Enkiyio like a spiderweb.  It goes without saying, this pristine environment supports, not only a wide variety of flora, but fauna as well.  Naimina Enkiyio is teeming with hosts of avian species, including silvery-cheeked hornbill, Hartlaub’s turaco, Narina trogon, African crowned eagle, Ayer’s hawk-eagle, Olive pigeon, white-headed wood hoopoe, tropical boubou, and eastern double-collared sunbird, just to name a few.  Scores of leopards and several prides of lions prowl along the forest floor, hunting cape buffalo and the always abundant bushbuck.  Porcupine, serval cats, and zorilla emerge from their dens as the sun sets.  Our fisi friends are present here too, although they are significantly larger and much shaggier due to the frigid montane climate, with temperatures dipping to 2°C at certain times of the year.  My favorite and perhaps one of the most charismatic animals of the forest are the black-and-white guerezas, a quite stunning species of colobus monkey that inhabits this remote region.  They cause quite a ruckus in the early morning with their daily territorial calls each troop unleashes to demonstrate their size and fitness to neighboring troops.

A young male leopard resting on the edge of a kiwanjo at the onset of dusk.  He had likely never seen a car in his life before, since the primary means of transport in the forest is on foot.  Correspondingly, he was a quite curious feline and couldn’t figure out what to make of this strange animal with four wheels and two luminous orbs in front.

Naimina Enkiyio although spectacular and magnificent in its own right, is only unique due to the surrounding community of Maasai that defend its borders.  This is the real reason for the topic of my blogpost today.  Many conservationists will tell you there are three main pillars of conservation: the flora and fauna themselves, the ecosystems and resources they utilize to subsist, and the financial means required to protect the former two pillars (i.e. fences, ranger salaries, removal of invasive species, etc.).  However, from my personal experience, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain a successful conservation project sans the fourth pillar of conservation: the local peoples.  Often times they have vast, innate knowledge of the surrounding environment they live in, how it has changed overtime, and what strategies could be employed to conserve the environment – whether this be a reversion to traditional practices or implementation of novel ones.  Naimina Enkiyio Forest has persisted, where other pristine environments have faltered at the exploitive hands of humanity, in a large part because of its protective communities. 

Mzei Ole Kuluo (left) and Mzei OlTukai (right) standing on the precipice of Olendipipi, The End of the World, at the conclusion of our day’s trekking.  Not pictured is Libon Parmuat, a doctor of sorts in his community, who also spent the week guiding us around with the Wazee.  The forest has been these three elders’ homes since they were born and their intricate knowledge of it is boundless.

A few years ago, a wonderful couple, who consider Naimina Enkiyio a very special place, recognized this wealth of local knowledge and sought to unify the forest communities to ensure Naimina Enkiyio’s further persistence.  Named after a revered medicinal tree which grows in the forest, the Orkonyil Association was conceived to provide sustainable alternative livelihoods and protect the forest.  The alternative incomes currently being implemented are permaculture, sustainable livestock grazing, and beekeeping.  Pooled income from the Association are used to create infrastructure beneficial to the communities.  For example, electricity has recently been brought to the forest communities through Orkonyil, as well as machinery to create compressed bricks for building houses and water tanks.  Some funds will also be used for anti-poaching and anti-logging operations.  Eventually, once these alternative livelihoods are in place, a small ecotourism outfit run completely through Orkonyil will supplement income to the Association.  Keeping ecotourism as a small portion of the Associations financial portfolio will prevent complete dependence on ecotourism should it falter and proliferation of roads and other tourism structures that would leave the forest vulnerable to general degradation, logging, and poaching.  Naimina Enkiyio is an absolutely amazing and fascinating biome of humanity, wildlife, and environment.  In my opinion, it seems to be in pretty safe hands under the watchful management of the Orkonyil Association.  On behalf of Serena Fisi Camp, I would like to thank all of the forest communities, their leadership, and the creators of the Orkonyil Association for allowing us to enter their secluded and pristine paradise, experience their culture and traditional way of life, providing us with some of the most hosp

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day,
my fellow hyena enthusiasts!

While there may not be chocolates and roses here in the Masai Mara, Valentine's Day certainly was not forgotten. Although Valentine's Day may come at different times of year for buffalo, hyenas, and eagles, everyone celebrates in their own way.

True love: the cloacal kiss of the Martial Eagle
Martial Eagles are truly monogamous, and arguably more faithful than humans. Before each mating bout, the male spends many days seducing his mate with the finest of foods. After performing a courtship ritual midair, the couple consummates their relationship with a cloacal kiss. The male mounts the female and presses his cloaca up to hers, transferring his sperm. His role isn't over yet: he will be a committed father to their chick, bringing food back to the nest.

Photo courtesy of Stratton "Eagle Eyes" Hatfield, explorer extraordinaire.
The open relationship
Buffalo are quite promiscuous; both the males and females. As the breeding season approaches, the breeding herds join forces with the bachelor herds to get some love. An interested male "tends" to a female, following her until she reciprocates his feelings. If, during this time, she catches the eye of a more dominant male, the first male's courtship will all be for naught. If he is successful, there are still no strings attached; there is no lasting social bond between the male and female. In fact, as soon as they are finished, she will welcome another male's advances... and maybe even another.

The rolling stone
Elephants are incredibly social, but only the ladies and their kiddos are welcome to join the party. The bachelors are destined to a life of solitary roaming, but enter the exclusive ladies-only club when they are in musth: a state of high sexuality and aggression.
Rather than watching for a little wink or a flirty smile, bulls have to work a little harder to gauge a female's receptivity. He rubs the end of his trunk against her genitals, inhaling as he goes, and then uses the tip of his trunk to blow the air back into his own mouth. The smell will tell him whether or not his love interest is in estrus.
The fifty-year-old males with the largest trunks tear up the love scene in the herds, while the younger, smaller-trunked males have to bide their time. After a few weeks with his lady and her family, the bachelor is back out roaming the fields.

Two young elephants play-mount, practicing for someday when they'll become parents!
Photo credit to Erin Person, the glue that holds the hyena lab together!
The patriarch
Little is known about the secret love lives of Thomson's gazelles. However, one thing is clear: the males call the shots. Males defend a territory and will actively herd females to keep them on "their property." The males will attempt to mate with many females that he keeps in his territory.

Photo courtesy of Erin Person.
The cute couple
Bat-eared foxes, like Martial Eagles, are quite committed to one another. A territory is defended by a single mated pair. During the day, they sleep cuddled up together in a burrow. During the long nights, they forage together. The two also groom each other, play together, and protect and support each other. The monogamous pair breeds annually and then raises their kits together.

Photo courtesy of Erin Person.
It's complicated
A lion's love affair is a complicated one, rife with romance and fighting. A flirtatious female invites a male over to mate with her and he happily obliges. And then he obliges again, and again, and again. Their relationship runs hot for days as they mate multiple times per an hour. At each dismount, they have a small spat -- the dismount is painful for the female -- but within seconds, she calls him back over, rolling on her back and reaching out to him with a paw.

The mongoose sandwich
Like spotted hyenas, female dwarf mongooses run the show! A matriarch has a single mate within the group, and this couple is the only one to mate. However, this Valentine's Day, it looks the one queen decided to give everyone a go. The four mongooses formed a small train, swapping places with one another every few seconds. They won't be forgetting this Valentine's Day anytime soon.

Was this true mating? Was it just play-mounts? We may never know.

The gentleman
Female hyenas run the show; there's no question about it. This makes courting a nerve-wracking endeavor for interested males. The male and female spend time together -- wandering, resting -- before the male starts to make his move. At the beginning of the courtship, the male has to get up his nerve; he will attempt to approach her again and again, each time losing his nerve and backing off from her. As he gets bolder, he will groom his forelegs (a sure sign of adoration) and even bow for her. What a gentleman.

Katana bows to a beautiful female hyena.
But then again, aren't all hyenas beautiful?

If the female shares his feelings, they will go on a little getaway together. They head to the edge of their territory or, in Stardust's and Onekama's case, into the outskirts of a neighboring clan's territory. This ensures that they will have some much-needed privacy.

Mating requires quite a bit of skill on Onekama's part. He has to insert his phallus into hers! This requires Stardust's full cooperation. But, as you can see, he's got it!

Onekama rests his had on Stardust's back as they mate, just meters away from our car.

After Stardust's first-ever taste of copulation, she wasn't quite done with Onekama yet. She playfully chased him, even as the exhausted guy tried desperately to escape. They ran in circles around our car! Finally, he obliged and off they went again. After they were truly done, Onekama returned to their territory, with a very content Stardust on his heels. Along the way, they stopped at a small pond to swim and playfully splash each other. We named the pond The Honeymoon Suite.

Stratton Hatfield, Martial Eagle Researcher and Explorer Extraordinaire
Animal Diversity Web

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Luckiest Warthog in the Mara

I confess, before today I never found warthogs to be particularly impressive. Of course, this was before I met the champion of all warthogs. His athletic skills when faced with a rambunctious pack of hyper hyenas were beyond compare, as he managed to weave and dodge the whole lot for the better part of five minutes. A credit to his kin and all he stands for, he towers alone as a shining beacon at which a baffled pack of carnivores and this amused researcher can but wonder. Evolution, take notes.
This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than some scrappy wide receiver weaves through his more intimidating opponents to run the football in for the game winning touchdown.

This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than our cruiser weaves through 400 cows during our morning livestock traffic jam.

This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than I weave through a crowd of 10,000 MSU students on my bike when I'm 20 minutes late to class.

This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than your mom weaves through a frantic Kroger the day before Thanksgiving.


This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than Beyonce weaved through a crowd of rabid Grammy fans while 5 months pregnant with twins.

And as if he didn't already earn the title of the Baddest Pig in East Africa, this spectacular warthog proceeds to feast in the middle of the den of his foiled adversaries after besting them in the chase. My hero.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Urban Hyenas in Ethiopia

Hello everyone, I just arrived in Mekelle, Ethiopia two days ago to study the urban hyenas of Ethiopia.

My route of travel from the Maasai Mara on the Tanzanian border, to Nairobi where I flew to Addis Ababa and took a connecting flight to Mekelle in Northern Ethiopia in the Tigray region. (Harar is the little red dot in eastern Ethiopia). 

 Ethiopia is somewhat unique among African countries because the people there believe that hyenas consume bad spirits. Because of this belief hyenas are less persecuted than they are in places like Kenya and has facilitated the rise of the "urban hyena". Almost all large cities in Ethiopia support large populations of hyenas that scavenge from rubbish dumps and domestic animals.

Harar, Ethiopia is the most well known city for seeing these urban hyenas because of the "hyena men" who feed the hyenas nightly as a show for tourists. 

In Mekelle I'm collaborating with a scientist, Dr. Gidey Yirga, who was been studying the urban hyenas of Mekelle. In Mekelle, hyenas congregate around the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of the city and this is where Dr. Gidey has been studying them. Interestingly, the result from a genetic study done by Master's Student Elien Schramme suggests a massive break down of clan structure in Mekelle with little to no genetic structuring despite an extremely high density of hyenas (1.84 individuals/sq km). This density is far higher than any other hyena density on record, the next highest figure is 1.5 individuals/sq km in the Ngorongoro Crater in 1972. 

Though domestic animals almost entirely make up the diet of spotted hyenas, Dr. Gidey has found that the economic loss is minimal. On average hyena depredation of livestock costs households about 0.7% of their annual income (disease in livestock costs 1.6x this much). This is largely because most of the food hyenas obtain is through scavenging at waste dumps, rather than active hunting of domestic animals. The exception to this rule is during the Christian fasting period when hyenas make up the largest part of their diet from hunting donkeys due to reduced waste availability. 

I'm planning on going to the rubbish dumps of Mekelle at night to give these urban hyenas my multi-access box and cylinder detour-task to see how the urban life might affect innovation and inhibitory control! Hypotheses for the evolution of large brains and cognition predict that urban animals will be better problem solvers than rural animals due the demands of surviving in an evolutionarily novel environment.

Disclaimer: I did not take any of these photos! 

Schramme, E., 2015. Social Structure of Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) Populations around Mekelle city in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Yirga, G. et al., 2013. Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) coexisting at high density with people in Wukro district, northern Ethiopia. Mammalian Biology - Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, 78(3), pp.193–197.

Abay, G.Y. et al., 2010. Peri-urban spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) in Northern Ethiopia: diet, economic impact, and abundance. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 57(4), pp.759–765.

Yirga, G. et al., 2012. Adaptability of large carnivores to changing anthropogenic food sources: diet change of spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) during Christian fasting period in northern Ethiopia. The Journal of animal ecology, 81(5), pp.1052–5.

Audet, J.-N., Ducatez, S. & Lefebvre, L., 2016. The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization. Behavioral Ecology, 27(2), pp.637–644.

Maklakov, A.A. et al., 2011. Brains and the city: big-brained passerine birds succeed in urban environments. Biology letters, 7(5), pp.730–2.

Papp, S. et al., 2014. A comparison of problem-solving success between urban and rural house sparrows. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 69(3), pp.471–480.

Preiszner, B. et al., 2017. Problem-solving performance and reproductive success of great tits in urban and forest habitats. Animal Cognition, 20(1), pp.53–63.

Snell-Rood, E.C. & Wick, N., 2013. Anthropogenic environments exert variable selection on cranial capacity in mammals. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 280(1769), p.20131384.


Monday, February 6, 2017

Not About Cho’ Life

Greetings Fisi Blog readership.  In terms of importance, one underrated aspect of camp life in the Mara is access to the “choo” – the word for bathroom in Kiswahili (pronounced cho).  Given the likelihood of GI infections and other bugs of that ilk, it’s always nice to have nearby choo you can run to.  However, living in a tented camp without askaris (guards) or fences is a reality out here, and one that you need to respect if you plan to continue living.  Hordes of dangerous animals migrate through camp every night to reach a productive swathe of grassland on the plateau behind the forested hillside our camp rests on – the herbivores to consume said grass and the carnivores follow to prey upon the herbivores.   Most of the time it isn’t safe to leave your tent in Serena between the hours of 9:00PM and 5:00AM. The species you need to especially watch out for are cape buffalo, hippos, and elephants, with lions and leopards also presenting a significant threat but not as likely to get taken by surprise and charge you.  Obviously, documenting nocturnal camp life if pretty difficult given the aforementioned set of circumstances.  But there is good news!

A collection of fauna that enjoy the Cho' Life
I’ve recently acquired a game camera from the US of A and have deployed it in strategic positions around camp to capture the wildlife we encounter on a daily basis around the choo.  The species captured so far, include: a lion, our resident leopard (affectionately named Carlos), impala, a hippo (one of the thousands of pictures of them that I have), one of our three resident genets, some baboons from the local troop, a young bushbuck, one of our fisi friends from North Clan (shamefully didn’t show us any spots), a dik-dik, and our resident white-tailed mongoose.  Some animals not captured yet, but seen frequently enough are elephants, giraffes, cape buffalo, warthogs, banded mongoose, and dwarf mongoose. The most glaring omission is an individual known as the “Choo-ffalo” – a crazy, old cape buffalo who loves the choo for reasons unbeknownst to us Fisi campers.  You would think there would be other cool hangout spots much more luxurious than our choo – but the Chooffalo doesn’t feel that way so more often than not he’s grazing somewhere in the vicinity after the sun sets.  He’s a really great guy though.

All hail His Grace, Carlos of House Chui, First of His Name, King of the Jowls, Lord of the Night, and Protector of the Realm

Keep your fingers crossed and hopefully soon we’ll get some cool footage on the game cam.  That is after I fix it up a bit.  About two weeks into shooting, Scar (the infamous one-eyed lion of Serena pride) and his brothers decided they didn’t like their close-up and pawed camera off the tree mount I had set up along one of the Hippo Highways.  This must’ve been an inside job and Scar knew which way the camera would be pointing, as we didn’t even get a single shot of the event!  It survived the battering somehow and will be as good as new with some strategic application of Gorilla glue.

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