Wednesday, June 28, 2017

South hyenas are feeling rowdy...

South hyenas have been feeling rambunctious lately. Not only was there a bit of a shake-up between JAVA, the current alpha, and BLG, a lower ranking female and her cubs (see "Mean Girls"), but the whole clan has been feeling rowdy lately. 

Just the other morning we were having a relatively quiet den scene. There were a few cubs play romping while JAVA and some other adults and subadults napped. Then, like a light switch, half the hyenas were loping off across the plain, apparently having been cued into some signal unbeknownst to us. 

We arrived to see this: a hyena-jackal showdown! Apparently the hyenas had discovered a jackal den. They were bristle-tailed, forming a coalition against the jackals in order to dive their heads down into the jackal holes, most likely looking for jackal pups. 

TOBA, one of JAVA's kids, peers down into a jackal den hole while the mother jackal looks on. 

The little jackals didn't stand a chance. But luckily, the hyenas were more interested in sniffing into the den holes than harassing the parents. Above, one of the jackals yips her distress.

Jackals are pretty bold however and they got their revenge on KAPU. This jackal bit her in the butt.

KAPU looked extremely surprised at this unexpected challenge.

Luckily the jackals are much faster than hyenas.

Meanwhile, 3 adult male hyenas decided to show up to the party. However, the male hyenas didn't care about the jackals, they were more interested in JAVA. Usually we don't witness male on female aggression. Above, two males approach JAVA who "grins". Grinning (below) is usually a submissive behaviors but females will sometimes grin at male hyenas who are seeking proximity to her. This behavior, where several males gang up on a female, is called "baiting".

Above, JAVA grins and lunges at the males who quickly retreat.

Eventually, the hyenas got bored of attempting to retrieve jackal pups from the den and as JAVA didn't look ready to mate anytime soon, the males also wandered off. Good thing for the jackals, they had dug their den holes too deep and narrow even for a smallish subadult hyena to get into them. Above, the two jackals return to their den and give a good glare at us in our research vehicle.

Long story short: Several hyenas decided to go gang up on some jackals, and then in all the excitement, some male hyenas also decided to gang up on JAVA. Us researchers were left with a long transcription of behavior to code!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friendship and Happiness

Hey folks!

     I’m Emily, another new research assistant at Serena Camp. I recently graduated from the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 4+1 Master’s program at Tulane University. During my undergraduate career I assisted in data collection for the Mockingbird project in the Jordan Karubian lab. We collected information on behavior and lead levels in blood to study the link between soil lead level and mockingbird fitness in different populations throughout New Orleans. I also spent a good deal of time coaching at NOLA gymnastics.

Here is Kaia, demonstrating the ideal position in which to study zebra sociality. 

      After graduation, I spent a summer at the Mpala Research Center in Laikipia, Kenya. There, I worked in the Daniel Rubenstein lab assisting in social network data collection with a PhD student, Kaia Tomback (see photo above). I also assisted Dr. Andrew Gersick in playback experiments at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy (see photo below). While spending most of my days elbow deep in zebra dung, I learned to love life in the field. I continued my work with Andy the next year, assisting with data analysis. Knowing that I was looking for a research position after graduation, Andy introduced me to Dr. Holekamp.
This is Andy, shown recording zebra behavior during a playback trial. 

     Currently, I just finished my first week at Serena camp. I am settling into life in a new place, and I love it here. The triangle is beautiful, with an entirely different ecosystem than Mpala. I am learning the work slowly, and already have a favorite hyena (EREM). EREM was the first hyena I could identify in the field, which was an exciting moment for me. I still have around 179 to learn, but I’ll get there. I have also enjoyed meeting new people and going on adventures around the triangle, including birding. I have a birding hobby, and here I added more birds to my life list in one day than I did all last year. To be fair, Stratton Hatfield (pictured on the bottom of the following photo), a Martial Eagle researcher, was there to identify them all for me. My first week could not have been more amazing, and I cannot wait to see what the ensuing year holds. 

Mike and me getting a piggyback from Stratton on the Tanzanian border. PC: Kecil John

Monday, June 19, 2017

Finally Here

Pleased to meet you all.

I'm Kecil, one of the new Serena Camp research assistants. I just graduated from MSU in May with a degree in Zoology and a concentration in Evolution and Ecological Biology. I have been part of the MSU Hyena Project since freshman year, when I joined the lab in East Lansing as a professorial assistant. My job was to enter data from the field into spreadsheets so the graduate students could investigate the behavior of these social carnivores.  It is a dream come true to travel to Kenya and participate in field research.

After graduation I had a month at home, then I packed my bags and headed to Kenya. I flew into Nairobi on June 7, and got to Serena on June 14. It has been an awe-inspiring few days. Waking up with giraffes right next to the driveway is amazing. Last night we drove into camp and there were elephants among the tents (we stayed in the cars until they passed by). As someone from a mid-sized city in Michigan, it is incredible to be among these legendary creatures. Yesterday was especially exciting.

For some background, there are only between 30 and 40 adult cheetahs in the whole Mara, around 3,000 square kilometers. Cheetah sightings are extremely rare. Last year the research assistants in Serena only saw 10 cheetahs total.

Yesterday, we saw three.

To be fair, it's not clear if they were three separate cheetahs or the same individual multiple times, but it was extraordinary all the same. I grew up watching Animal Planet specials about big cats, and now here I am seeing them in the wild with my own eyes.

If this is what my first three days in the Mara has been like, I can't wait to see what the next year holds.

I am in the back of the car trying to get a good picture to ID the cheetah.
You can see the cheetah next to the ladder on the side of the car.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science