Saturday, March 25, 2017

Urban Hyena Update

Hello everyone, I'm Lily, a graduate student studying cognition in urban hyenas in Mekelle, Ethiopia. Here's an update on what's going on in Mekelle! 

We finally got to see Rake in the daylight. Usually we set up just around dusk when it's still light out and then as it gets dark hyenas start to trickle through. We set up on a "hyena highway" between their denning sites just outside the city and the sites inside and around the city where they forage. You can hear a lot of human activity on the road; the hyenas appear quite used to this. 

Some surprise visitors! These porcupines just waltzed into this trial like they owned they owned the place. The hyenas didn't seem afraid, but they definitely respected their space!

Another visitor: the African Golden Wolf. Originally thought to be the same species as the Golden Jackal which lives in Asia, scientists discovered that these "jackals" are actually more closely related to wolves. 

Meet Elmo: a young subadult that is pretty fond of the box. Notice the three adults who are keeping at a "safe" distance. 

Unfortunately this is Elmo's favorite thing to do when he's near the multi-access box. Luckily he's really adorable so we don't mind watching him! 

Finally: English opens the multi-access box using the drawer! This is the first urban hyena to solve the box and he's opened the drawer twice now. Unfortunately for us, English appears to be extremely low ranking. We've seen him several times, but he only approaches the box when there are no other hyenas around. We're keeping our fingers crossed that he'll come back and open it a few more times! 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Cubdate: The Second Wave

The fall cub boom certainly shook up life at Serena Camp. Mike and I never knew what to expect when we rolled up to the dens. Some days, we'd see brand new cubs emerge from the den for the first time, clumsily staggering about on their stubby legs and squinting against the sunlight. Other days, we'd find ourselves in a whirlwind of romping and rolling cubs -- a whirlwind that usually found its way under our car to chew out the cables to our headlights and turn signals. Occasionally, we would be the only ones at the den; the hyenas had relocated and we missed the memo.

Anubis was so kind as to donate some of her saliva to the hyena lab
using Tracy Montgomery's saliva stick. To say "thank you," I gave her
a nice pile of milk powder. I should have known that you can't give milk
powder to one South Clan cub without giving it to all of them!

In our six months in the Masai Mara, Mike and I have watched dozens of cubs transform from clumsy fuzzballs to semi-graceful young hyenas. Many of our fluffers recently began graduating from the communal den, taking their first clumsy steps into sub-adulthood. As exciting as this was, it left Mike and I with empty nest den syndrome. However, it wasn't long before the second wave of the cub boom hit! We now have 21 new cubs to welcome to life in the Masai Mara.

North Clan

To say that Petra and Ho Ho were fashionably late to the social scene would be an understatement. Months ago, LCS went MIA and was presumed to be dead. Last week, not only did LCS rise from the dead to make an appearance at the den, but she had a four-month-old cub (Petra) with her!

Plenty of magicians have vanishing acts, but it takes mad skill to reappear -- especially with a four-month-old kid!
(LCS and her brand new kiddo, Petra)

RAMA, on the other hand, has been a regular fixture at the den scene for some weeks now, so we wouldn't have been surprised if we saw her suckling a little black cub. What we didn't expect was to see her suckling a five-month-old cub (Ho Ho)! LCS, RAMA, where were you hiding these little critters?

Seeing a five-month-old mystery cub at the den feels a bit like stepping into the twilight zone.
(RAMA and her newest kid, Ho Ho)
When Petra (PTRA) and Ho Ho (HOHO) finally decided to join the rest of the clan at the communal den, the den scene was already hopping. Beluga, Diva, and Deja were off exploring the territory, but Garfield and Krazy Kat already had a new cohort of cubs to keep them company:

Mom          Cub
RMON      Discovery Channel (DISC)
RMON      Syfy (SYFY)
WAFL       Hershey's (HRSH)
WAFL       Smucker's (SMCK)
TREX        Life Finds A Way (LIFE)
TREX        Hold Onto Your Butts (BUTS)
TEDY        Niko Tinbergen (NIKO)
SAU          Arctodus (ARCT)
SAU          Black Bear (BLCK)

Cub versus stalk of grass: who will win?
This intense battle raged on for nearly twenty minutes before this cub emerged, the victor.
With thirteen cubs clambering around the den in an excited frenzy, North Clan takes the cake for "Most Happening Den Scene."

Ho Ho, Petra, and two little black cubs romp and stomp all over Ferguson Farms.
Ferg tries and fails to suppress his inner cub.

Happy Zebra Clan

MUON has earned quite the reputation around Serena Camp. It started with her awkward social behavior and peaked when she started spending her evenings underground in the den, earning the title "Subterranean Mole Queen." Of course, when she brought her cub above ground to join the other hyenas, we just had to call him a goon.

Mom          Cub
MUON      The Show Must Go On (GOON)
EREM       King Ghidhora (KING)
EREM       Drogon (DRGN)
TULA        Andromeda the Chained Maiden (DROM)
TULA        Perseus the Hero (PRSS)
CSBY        Solitaire (SOLI)
CSBY        Egyptian Rat Screw (ERS)

TULA's cubs are the youngest at the den, but arguably the boldest. When they were just learning to use their legs, they were already stumbling ten meters away from the den (very brave for such little cubs!) to join in all the hyena games.

Little DROM or PRSS stumbles out into the light of day, but is still too little to walk in a straight line!

The recent rains have covered Happy Zebra in a sea of tall grass, and the hyenas have seized the opportunity to ditch us. Stay tuned as we try to locate the new Happy Zebra den!

Can you spot Grace O'Malley?

South Clan

Not long ago, Portcullis Den was a whirlwind of happy, fluffy cubs, but it has since been abandoned. We suspect that some of the cubs have moved to a den in a dense thicket on a rocky hill. The rest are out exploring their territory and learning what it takes to be a hyena. We're always proud to see our brave little fluffers grow up and brave the Mara, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little sad to see them leave the den.

Thankfully, South Clan has a handful of precious new little cubbers!

Mom          Cub
WHIZ        Prodigy (PRDG)
WHIZ        Mastermind (MSTM)
BBAN       Lamborghini (LMBO)
BBAN       Ferrari (FRRI)
PALA        Sam I Am (SAMI)

Mastermind latches onto BBAN's neck in a desperate attempt to get his mom's attention. Meanwhile, Prodigy uses her mom as a jungle gym. Their names fit them well: Prodigy is growing big and strong, being the little cub prodigy that she is, while the brilliant Mastermind is projected to be the first new cub to master the saliva stick!
"When you can't nurse in preferred position, make your own preferred position."
-Life advice from Lamborghini and Ferrari

Sam I Am crawls out of the den for the first time! (SAMI is only four weeks old in these photos.) In their excitement, Lamborghini and Ferrari started to play a little rough with Sam I Am. PALA  rushes over to intervene, carrying Sam I Am to the den and placing him safely inside. She then sat guard outside of the den, keeping a watchful eye over her precious little cub.

Although we have 21 clumsy new little cubs to gush over, our big kids will always have a special place in our hearts.

Although the dens are full of new little cubbers, we haven't forgotten about our big fluffers.
American Pharoah would like to remind everyone that he is still cute and quite entertaining.
To demonstrate his point, he goes crazy over a big puddle while the adults are busy eating.

In Loving Memory: The InDAMAtable Spirit ♥

For me, Lee Adama's sweet little face has been one of the highlights of Kenya.

As we welcome new cubs to life in the Masai Mara, we lose others. Lee Adama (DAMA) was my favorite cub right away. He was exceptionally fearless. When the hyenas heard a loud noise, everyone (cubs and adults alike) would scatter, leaving the den scene empty... except for DAMA, that is, who never even flinched. When he stood on his hind legs to chew on the tires of the car, I would try to shoo him away, only to get some classic hyena side-eye before he ignored me and continued chewing. One day, he stood on his hind legs and put his paws on my car door, hopping up and down trying to reach me to play. He truly had an indomitable spirit, and I couldn't wait to see what life had in store for him.

It has been over two months since we last saw DAMA. Every time we radio track his mom, Marten, I hope to see fearless little DAMA lying next to her, nursing, but each time I'm disappointed. We'll never know what happened to DAMA, but it seems unlikely that we'll see this precious little face again. Still, I'm holding out hope.

Whether or not DAMA is still out there, we can be certain of one thing: he made the most of his short life. In the meanwhile, we'll just have to pour all of our attention into getting to know our new cubs!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Python vs. Hyena: A Battle to the Death

Well a bit of a click-bait title there, but I bet you’ll be happy you did indeed click in the end.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen several clashes between giant serpents and unsuspecting mammals over the course of my travels throughout the years.  There was one time I saw a massive anaconda (the heaviest snake species in the world) take down a big male capybara in the Amazon.  Another when a 5m reticulated python (the longest snake species in the world) strangled and consumed a Sulawesi warty pig – which is just a fancy name for a wild boar.  However, I’ve never seen one of these leviathans take down a fellow carnivore until I came to the Mara. 
Bit of a spoiler here, but the rock python emerged as the victor in this clash of titans.  Pythons are constrictors and they slowly squeeze their prey to death after the prey's inevitable need to exhale air from their lungs [I've been corrected in the comments!: constrictor snakes cut off circulation and their prey are quickly rendered unconscious] and then swallow them whole - not one of the greatest ways to go.  All media was generously donated by Jos Bakker and his travel companions. 
After a tip-off from a benevolent group of tourists and their driver, we were informed that a massive 4m rock python had dispatched a hyena and was currently consuming it.  We were originally very skeptical that snake of any magnitude would target large carnivores capable of retaliating and causing significant bodily harm to said snake, like a spotted hyena.  A valuable friend of any scientist is skepticism, but thorough investigation is also a powerful ally.  When anxiously questioned for the location of this predator cataclysm, we were directed to a bridge over a swampy culvert on the border of Happy Zebra and North territories – probably the last place we were hoping this hypothetical event would’ve taken place as now there was an even higher probability that one of our beloved fisi had been dispatched.  Unfortunately, by the time we obtained this intel, it was too late to gallivant around the Mara which had received a true walloping of precipitation that night.  Olivia and I reasoned that a snake with a 68kg hyena bolus in tow would not be making it very far, so we elected to delay our desperate foray until the morning to allow the accumulated water to drain.  Eventually, the rock python was located, resembling, as its namesake implies: a gigantic rock submerged in a swamp.

Here is a video of the end of the strangulation phase and start of the swallowing phase.  You'll see the python first searching for the head, then miraculously pulling all 68kgs of hyena into position, unhinging its mandible, and beginning to swallow the prey head first.  All media was generously donated by Jos Bakker and his travel companions. 

Through cross-references of the video footage above, the discovery of a large rock python at the described location, and the condition of the snake – we concluded that this behemoth rock python did in fact kill and consume an adult spotted hyena.  It took several nerve-racking hours of feverishly searching the binders of our three clans and recently missing hyenas, but we successfully established that this hyena was not one of our own and was likely an immigrant male looking for a new clan.  This individual was likely ambushed and strangled to death as he or she wandered through the swampy culvert or neighboring drainage pipes looking for a cool place to sack out for the afternoon, as hyenas are wont to do.  Nevertheless, it is an incredibly impressive kill for this python.  This snake obviously knew what it was doing as it is one thing to successfully bite an adult hyena, and another to successfully bite, strangle cut off circulation, and come out of the fight unscathed.  One false strike and that hyena could have easily turned around and crushed the python’s skull.  Now that the rock python has successfully swallowed the hyena, it will likely lie motionless in a warm, safe place nearby for a couple of months.  It will digest the hyena in totality and given a kill of this magnitude it will not need to eat for several months after.  Well here’s to another fascinating struggle for life and death in the Mara.  Always remember, if a terrible B-movie appears on the SyFy channel in a couple of years from now titled something like Mega Python vs. Super heard it here first!
Didn't your mother ever teach you to chew with your mouth closed!?  All media was generously donated by Jos Bakker and his travel companions. 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science