Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Cool sighting AND my 6 month Kenya-versary!

First up: Cool animal sighting: African wild dogs!!

We got a call from Stratton, our friend from the Maasai Mara Martial Eagle project, midday on a Monday. He said “Morgan, there are wild dogs near you. Don’t think, just get in the car.” I was already up and running. I may have hung up on him in my frenzy but I can’t be sure, I was in a tizzy. We met up with a tour driver, Derrick, who had given Stratton the tip, and raced out there. It had rained the last few days so the crossings were questionable but Derrick plowed through them ahead of us and we managed to follow just fine.

We were driving the inside edge of a lugga we call horse shoe (it’s U-shaped like a horse shoe, of course) when Benson says “THERE”. Sure enough, 2 painted dogs were sacked out sleeping against each other under a tree!

We stayed with the dogs for a while but had to leave to get ready for obs. On obs we slowly made out way back towards horse shoe and managed to run into the two wild dogs again, along with about 6 tour cars. It was the perfect time of day and they were starting to hunt! So we followed them around for a little while. At one point they came across two of our own hyenas, Cyberman and Unagi. At first Cyber and Unagi shied away from the wild dogs but they eventually formed up and ran the dogs off a few times after that. Unfortunately, it started to rain really heavily and we had to race home before we were stuck in the Mara for the night.

After we got home we heard that the wild dogs had taken down a gazelle and the hyenas had stolen it! Once again proving that it is hyenas - not lions or anything else - that reign here in the Mara (You might think I’m biased but you'd be wrong).

Shortly after that I left for vacation and missed ANOTHER encounter with the dogs. Here are Rebecca’s photos!

Next up: The 15th of April was my 6 month Kenya-versary! Here are a few things I’ve learned about myself, the Mara, and life, man.

1.     A world without bagels and cream cheese is not one I can live in for long. Thankfully I JUST learned that Joseph can actually make bagels so that’s half of the puzzle right there.
2.     This Michigan-grown body can survive (unwillingly) in 95 degree daily dry heat. Who knew??
3.     The moment you start to feel confident in your abilities here in the Mara, you know something is about to go wrong. The Mara does not suffer confidence for long; you will be brought down. Get ready.
**Example: A few weeks ago I was on solo obs and I was feeling really good. I IDed all the hyenas and didn’t get lost, not even for a second! Well, about 5 minutes after noting that I was doing swell, a big swamp gobbled the vehicle up (I sort of drove right into it) and poor Benson who was home sick had to come pull me out….pole.
4.     Living and working and eating and breathing with the same humans can be super difficult. But when you work it out it can be also incredibly rewarding to have someone you can trust by your side every single day. The other ...uh...interesting aspect is how much you learn about yourself when all day you see yourself reflected in someone else’s reactions to you. It has been an experience of self-discovery/loathing/care that’s for sure. Communication is key, folks.

5.     Hyenas are the dopest, don’t let anyone tell you different.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Spotted Hyena Inhibitory Control

I've had a lot of posts about  the multi-access box that I'm using to test innovation in urban hyenas in Ethiopia and wild hyenas in Kenya. However, I'm also testing inhibitory control. Inhibitory control is the ability to suppress an ineffective, but prepotent, motor response. Like self-control in humans, it's thought to be important to innovation because in order to learn something new, one must often inhibit previous learning. I'm testing inhibitory control using a scaled-down detour task. Detour tasks require an individual subject to go around a transparent barrier in order to retrieve a reward. Many subjects find it hard to resist going straight for the reward initially even though it's not retrievable through the barrier. In this case, the barrier is a clear cylinder with a food reward on the inside. Hyenas who bump into the outside of the cylinder show poor inhibitory control and those who detour straight to the side of the cylinder show good inhibitory control.

For more information on inhibitory control in spotted hyenas see this post:

Self-control matters in spotted hyenas

I've collected a lot of trials in the past year; here's a video showing hyenas failing and succeeding at inhibition with the cylinder task:

Most hyenas have both successful and unsuccessful trials out of the 10 trials that I give them. I still have yet to see if the total number of successful trials they have will relate to innovation, age, sex, or other factors!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Long Rains (or lack there of)

This year has been a weird year for rain in Serena, plain and simple.  Instead of a drought until March and then the long rains starting – we got about a week of downpours in February when we thought the rains were early and another week of downpours in March when we thought the rains were on time.  Now we’re sitting pretty in the middle of April in the midst of a mini-drought with no rains in sight.  In any event, it seems like the rains are coming a little late this year.  In my opinion, this is pretty lame.  It rained just long enough to spring the grass from dormancy (which has now reached heights taller than the hood of the land cruiser) but given that it hasn’t rained in a month…it’s still dustier than Oklahoma in the 1930’s.  If the grass is going to be taller than the Empire State Building, it might as well be rainy to keep the dust at bay.

My guys from Toto echoing my thoughts on the rain situation in the Mara.

Even though it is incredibly difficult to locate our beloved Fisi under these conditions – actually it’s difficult to spot anything smaller than a bull elephant if I’m being honest – the grass and by extension the rains that give them life are what keeps this place ticking.  Without the rains, the grass doesn’t grow, the herbivores grow weak and search elsewhere for forage, and eventually this affects the carnivores at the top of the food chain.  I, for one, will be holding a nightly vigil until the return of nature’s lawn mowers and world renowned meals-on-hooves: the wildebeest.  The only species capable of wholesale harvesting two countries worth of grass and feeding two countries worth of large carnivores plus the ensuing scavengers, while managing to avoid the utter finality of extinction.  Local livelihoods are also affected by the lack of rain however, as any Maasai pastoralist will tell you.  At this time of year, many cows are just skin and bones as there isn't much grass in the rangelands to support the herds of cattle during the long droughts.  Some will eventually starve and this represents a real problem for those whose life savings is represented by these cattle.  
The now wonderfully bloated Talek River, with some Maasai modeling from Steven,
one of the camp ascaris (©Benson Pion).
In quite an extreme case of “be careful what you wish for”, the day I left to head to Talek in advance of the April 17th Nairobi trip the Mara decided to dump 44ml right over Talek Fisi Camp.  The Mara also decided to do this in the heart of Black Cotton Country, five minutes from of Fisi Camp.  With trouble ahead and trouble behind, the notion crossed my mind that I had no choice but to forge ahead into the fray.  In the little, old Maruti, also known as Gandalf the White to some, I did battle against the worn safari tracks that this behemoth meteorological event transformed into raging torrents of H2O, which could probably be categorized as Class 2 whitewater.  Despite the fact that the sun was still very much above the horizon at 02:00 PM, I could not see more than three meters past the hood of the car.  On top of this visibility issue, the windows needed to be at least partially open to prevent the windshield from fogging up and dropping my visibility to nil.  Let me tell you, the precipitation this storm was imparting upon the Mara was much less like rain drops and much more like sky-diving sucker punches.  Given all of these factors working against me, it was quite slow going.  My best friend became 4WD-low…and if one thing is for sure, I will never claim that the little, old Maruti lacks power ever again.  All 60 of those horses came out in force for me and they are the only reason why I made it to Talek at all. 

H2O invading Talek Camp! (©Rebecca LaFleur)

Unfortunately, although I got into Talek, getting out would prove much more difficult once the water mixed with the black cotton.  We were so delayed by waiting for the accrued water to evaporate that we wound up getting to Nairobi by 08:00 PM.  We were even forced to leave earlier than we would’ve liked by an incoming storm – a storm which dropped a mighty 74ml!  Had we delayed any longer we probably would’ve been stuck in camp for another few days at the least.  Fingers crossed for getting back into camp at the end of this Nairobi trip!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Cute Enough to Eat

Warning: This blog post contains images and videos that some readers may find disturbing.

If you read the most recent Serena Cub Update, you already know that Happy Zebra Clan hyenas recently stumped the hyena researchers by disappearing into the tall grass and taking all the little ones with them. Mike and I spent weeks combing over their territory to no avail. On March 17, our favorite hyena cub, Quack, decided to lend us a helping hand. While oohing and ahhing over a honey badger, Mike and I spotted a hyena cub's head bobbing through the tall grass. While following Quack's fluffy little noggin through the sea of grass, we spotted a small herd of elephants throwing a tantrum. We left Quack to go and investigate.

When we got closer to the elephants, we were shocked to see five hyenas hunkered down in the grass at their feet! Little did we know, we had just stumbled across Happy Zebra's new den! The elephants approached to just meters from the hyenas and their cubs, who held their ground. The elephants flapped their ears angrily, trumpeted, and ripped apart one of the bushes covering the den holes. Eventually, the elephants turned their attention elsewhere and left the hyenas unscathed.

We thought it only appropriate to name this den "Angry Ele Den."

An elephant rips branches off of a bush and flings them over its head. The brave and patient hyenas lie in the grass, mere meters away from the angry eles' giant feet.
Over the next two weeks at Angry Ele Den, more and more cubs poured in until the den scene was hopping once again. The "big kids" (Quack, Skeptic, Cosmos), the "itty bitties" (The Kraken, Chupacabra, Caribou Lou, Jungle Juice, and The Show Must Go On), and tiny black cubs (including King Ghidorah and Drogon) were all reunited once more.

On April first, Angry Ele Den was as busy as ever! Lance and Claymore, daughters of the matriarch, babysit the little cuties.

When we showed up to Angry Ele Den on April first, it was a peaceful evening. The sunset was beautiful, a cool breeze was blowing, and the hyenas were all healthy and happy.

In the blink of an eye, that changed.

With no warning, Claymore leapt to her feet and charged into the crowd of tiny cubs, sending them scattering. She locked onto one tiny cub in particular, who giggled and tried to dart into a den hole, but it wasn't fast enough. Before we knew what was happening, Claymore lifted the cub into the air by its neck -- CRACK -- and then dropped it into a patch of grass. Everything went quiet again.

Stunned, we waited for the cub to emerge from behind the grass, but it didn't. We moved in for a closer look, only to find its limp, lifeless body.

Claymore had just killed a cub.

Mere moments after Claymore snaps the neck of a small cub, The Kraken, drags the cub's carcass across the den complex. Chupacabra, Caribou Lou, and Jungle Juice join in the excitement, blatantly ignoring Lance's protests. 

We had previously been warned by graduate student Kevin McCormick that Happy Zebra Clan was known for killing and eating cubs. Claymore, in particular, is a notorious cub killer. "Drunk with power," graduate student Kenna Lehmann jokingly described Claymore's violent behavior. However, infanticide is not a rare occurrence among spotted hyenas. In fact, it may account for a substantial proportion of mortality in cubs up to 3 months of age. Even captive hyenas have been known to kill one another's cubs!

Immediately following Claymore's sudden violent outburst, Lance began to show obvious signs of distress. She ran over, desperately groaning over the cub's limp body. As the cubs dragged the body around the den, treating it like a toy, Lance followed them helplessly. The cubs ignored her and continued to clumsily drag around -- and trip over -- the body, ripping it apart within minutes.

The cubs didn't waste any time devouring their younger denmate.
Within minutes, they tore open the dead cub's abdomen
and set to work slurping out those delicious intestines.

Although this cub had distinct spots, we were unable to identify it. All of the known spotty cubs were accounted for, so Mike and I concluded that this little fellow must have been new to Angry Ele Den. This isn't surprising; a previous study (White, 2005) found that infanticide often occurs within three days of a cub's arrival at the communal den.

So who could this cub have been? Judging by Lance's distress, she was either a very concerned citizen or, we suspect, the mother of the now deceased cub.

Lance is the youngest daughter of Pike (the matriarch), making her the second-highest ranking hyena in Happy Zebra Clan. Claymore, Lance's older sister, is the fifth-highest ranking hyena in the clan. If this really was Lance's cub (which we cannot confirm at this time), that would mean that Claymore knowingly killed her own niece or nephew and broke rank! Is this even possible?

Who would have known the intestines would be such a hit?

Not only is this behavior possible, but it has been observed many times. Infanticide occurs both between and within clans, as well as between close relatives. Full sisters sometimes kill each other's cubs! Equally astonishing, this behavior seems to occur irrespective of rank.

Why would an unprovoked hyena kill a member of its own clan? Clanmates need each other to defend food against lions, defend territory against neighboring clans, and communally rear offspring. This is why aggressions between clanmates are usually gentle and do not result in injury.

Furthermore, why would a hyena kill such a close relative? This excludes her from any inclusive fitness benefits from that cub's success!

The Happy Zebra Cubs didn't bat an eye at the cannibalization of their former playmate.
White (2005) suggested that this counterintuitive behavior can be explained by the Local Resource Competition Hypothesis. In a nutshell, sometimes, it is more advantageous to remove a future competitor than to tolerate them... even if they are a close relative. This has been reported in other species of social carnivore as well!

Claymore carries the cub's half-eaten body as she runs in circles around the den, with Lance hot on her heels.
There are still many questions surrounding this strange incident, but one thing is certain:
Happy Zebra cubs should sleep with one eye open.

As daylight faded, Claymore claimed the now-mangled carcass of her victim.
Although Lance chased her, Claymore refused to surrender her evening snack.


1) White, P. A. (2005). Maternal rank is not correlated with cub survival in the spotted hyena, 
Crocuta crocuta. Behavioral Ecology, 16(3), 606-613.

2) Hofer, H., & East, M. (1995). Population dynamics, population size, and the commuting system of Serengeti spotted hyenas. Serengeti II: dynamics, management, and conservation of an ecosystem, 2, 332.

3) Holekamp, K. E., & Smale, L. (1998). Behavioral development in the spotted hyena. Bioscience, 48(12), 997-1005.

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