Thursday, July 27, 2017

Beginner's Luck

I'm Julie, a new PhD student with the hyena project. I recently finished my master’s degree in Conservation Ecology at the University of Michigan where I studied feeding and behavioral ecology of gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia. I’m thrilled to be joining the Hyena Project, and learning how to transition from studying monkeys to hyenas. Luckily, both are fascinating!

A band of geladas in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Geladas are closely related to baboons, but belong to a different genus, Theropithecus, and only live in the Ethiopian highlands. Geladas live in large multi-level societies, and spend much of their day moving across high altitude plateaus and feeding on grass.

I was fortunate enough to get a chance to visit the Mara before starting the PhD program. This is a great opportunity to watch the hyenas and learn about how the data are collected to help me develop some ideas for my research. My trip started off in Serena Camp, where I had some serious beginner’s luck. My first morning out on "obs" with Lily and Kecil, the hyena Lily was conducting a cognition trial on looked up suddenly and ran off into the distance. Luckily, we were able to find where he ran off to and came upon a large group of hyenas feeding on a fresh warthog carcass. Just as we were settling in to watch the feeding session, two lionesses appeared out of the bushes, and started charging and roaring at the hyenas. The hyenas stood firm and mobbed the lions several times and retained control of the carcass. As the lions continue to circle the hyenas, we noticed four lion cubs in the bushes, waiting hopefully for a free meal. 

The lions attempted to get the carcass a few more times, but backed off.

The lions tried to get the carcass one more time. At the end of this video, you can see Waffles, the alpha female, take off with the carcass, leaving the rest of the hyenas to deal with the lions.

The hyenas eventually moved the carcass onto the road, and walked away from the lions. Waffles is on the far left with the carcass, while two hyenas stop to greet each other.

The lions trailed after them, but eventually gave up on their chance to steal breakfast, and watched the hyenas walk away. Hyenas often get a bad reputation for being scavengers and stealing from lions, so we had to set the record straight with a tour vehicle watching this interaction that the hyenas were the ones who made the kill, and the lions were attempting to steal it. This was clear because the lions had no blood on them, and many of the hyenas heads and necks were bloody from feeding.

One brave hyena approached the lions.

A few of the hyenas stop for a dip in the pond.

And that was only my first morning! My first week has been a whirlwind. I spent most of my time in Talek and have got to meet the field crew, seen many fascinating hyena behaviors and interactions, learned to identify a few hyenas, and seen tons of amazing wildlife including the wildebeest migration! I am heading back to Serena, and am looking forward to the rest of my time in the Mara!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

North males are invading South clan

Because we study 3 clans with shared borders at our Serena study site we occasionally see males from one of our study clans immigrating to another one of our study clans. Most immigrant males are given the name of a city since we don’t know anything about their parents or where they came from, but males that have been previously IDed retain the name they were given in their natal clan. We have Jazz and Jeep in our Happy Zebra clan who came from the Oz Valley clan. We have Trotsky and Wallflower in North clan who were born in South clan. And we have Katana in North Clan who was born in Happy Zebra. (I also once saw Sulawesi, a natal South Male, passing through Happy Zebra but he settled outside our study clans). However, in the last year we’ve had not just one, not two, but SIX North males seen in South clan with four confirmed as officially immigrated to South.

Excited immigrant males.
Texas Slim (SLIM) was the first North male to emigrate to South in December 2015. He was a little den-dependent cub when I first arrived to the Serena field site in May 2013 along with Strummer (STRM) and Lunch Lady (LADY). Strummer joined South clan shortly after in January 2016 and Lady finally followed in October 2016.

SLIM’s mom India Ink (INK) is still having babies in North. Right now, most likely unbeknownst to SLIM, INK has two new cubs Krazy Kat (KKAT) and Garfield (GARF). INK’s lineage is comic strips. SLIM’s older sister Get Fuzzy (FUZZ) has also started having babies of her own. Unfortunately, she lost her first cub, Belly Button (BUTN) which is not uncommon for a first litter.

SLIM as a fluffy cub.

SLIM as an adult male today.

INK nurses SLIM and DALT.
FUZZ, SLIM's older sister.

Strummer’s mom has unfortunately gone missing, which most likely means dead for an adult female hyena. However, his littermate Ramone (RMON) has given birth to her first litter, SyFy Channel (SYFY) and Discovery Channel (DISC). RMON and STRM were little trouble makers when they were cubs! They frequently came into camp and pulled the tarps above my tent down in the night, making a huge racket and waking me up!

STRM chewing on a car.
STRM, an adult male today.
RMON, now a beautiful young adult female.
DISC, one of RMON's first cubs.
RMON and CRIM at the North communal den.

LADY is one of Sherman’s (SHRM) kids, an adult female who recently passed away (see "Larger than Life: Sherman"). Her lineage was professions. LADY has two nieces still alive and well in North Clan, Billie Jean (BILJ) and Smooth Criminal (CRIM) (Michael Jackson songs). When LADY was a cub he chewed off my back-pack strap. (It took me hours to ID him by those scruffy side spots to figure out who did it!). Now he’s super easy to ID with great ear damage.

LADY chews on my backpack strap in 2013.
LADY, now an adult male with nice ear damage in South clan.
SHRM surveying her domain.
Since I’ve been out here in the field in 2017 we’ve also seen Rocket Scientist (RCKT), Kathleen Hanna (KATH) and Mrs. Butterworth’s (MRSB) in South territory. All three of these kiddos were born in North Clan and part of the early 2014 cohort of cubs.

RCKT happens to be LADY’s little brother! He’s been seen interacting with South hyenas three times now which means he's officially joined the clan for good. His littermate Astronaut hasn’t been seen in a while and most likely didn’t make it. LADY and RCKT are now SHRM’s only surviving kids.

SHRM nurses RCKT and ASTRO. 
RCKT was a scrawny little cub.
RCKT investigating the multi-access box in South Territory. He's got beautiful spots now! 

KATH is actually STRM’s younger brother! They’re both Arrow (ARRO) kids; her lineage was punk rock artists as you may have guessed. We haven’t seen KATH interacting with any South hyenas; we saw him hanging out with MRSB once and wandering around the “candy bar plains” another time. He was fairly skittish during both encounters which indicates to us that he’s still feeling nervous in South Territory.

ARRO watches as KATH and JETT explore outside the den.
KATH, now an adult male, exploring South Territory.

MRSB is the son of Waffles (WAFL), North’s matriarch. Her lineage is syrups (remember the “Syrup rebellion”?). WAFL seems to only have sons and it’s great to see some of them making it outside of their natal clan. MRSB has a little brother Hershey’s (HRSH) (still den-dependent) and Ferguson Farms (FERG) (a den-graduated subadult) and a niece, Soup Nazi (SOUP) (now an adult female, daughter of the deceased Log Cabin (LOGC)), living in North right now.

MRSB as a cute little black cub.
MRSB living the life of an immigrant male!
WAFL, the matriarch of North clan.
It’s been really cool to see all these hyenas that I knew as cubs grow up and join a new clan! Usually we have no idea what happens to a male hyena since we never see them again after they disperse so it’s quite the treat to get to follow these males throughout their lives.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sweet, Destroyer of Worlds

Hey folks,

            I wanted to introduce everyone to my favorite hyena, Sweet. Sweet is a young male just barely out of the black cub stage, but he already has the gumption of a full-grown female. Sweet the Hyena Cub lost the first fight of his life, for intra-litter dominance, to his brother Tangy. That defeat was the day Sweet the Destroyer was born. Sweet remembers, my friends. His mission ever since: to never lose again. Being the less dominant of the two, Sweet is much smaller than his brother and his spots haven’t fully come in yet. Despite this, he is pound for pound the most ferocious hyena I have met out here.

Above is Sweet gaining the upper hand in play with his larger brother Tangy.

            Never ask Sweet why he doesn’t nurse in preferred position or why he doesn’t nurse that often in general. If you manage to commit this faux pas, he’ll tell you he’s simply giving the other cubs a fighting chance on the field of battle, or that he has little interest in mortal needs like milk. But the real answer is that he’s still fuming over his prior defeat. Having been denied the better nipple for the duration of his short life, Sweet opts to take his vehemence out on every hyena that comes within hunting distance. Sweet is the first hyena to chase away the pesky adult males that hang around the den. They are eight times his size, yet lack the ability to fight off this scrappy cub. Inevitably the males will choose not to face Sweet’s one man army, and will slink off into the distance. 

            Sweet’s wrath is not limited to males, he also chases away lower ranking females. One day Rangsang, Palazzo, Sea Biscuit, and Cheese Whiz were all groaning over the den and greeting. Like an old man frustrated with the teenagers hanging out on his lawn, Sweet came barreling out of the den growling – causing all these adult females to back off the den excitedly, reminding them who is the real boss at the South communal den.

Here is a video of Sweet beating up on Belgian Tervuran, a subadult male. Despite the size difference, TERV acts submissively towards Sweet (probably a good idea).

            An avid play wrestler, Sweet is always starting fights with his playmates. Sweet is much smaller than all the cubs in the South clan, besides Sonic screwdriver (a black cub three months his junior). He doesn’t let size get in the way however, and will play mount any opponent he deems unworthy. As he is the seventh highest ranking hyena, this means he gets to beat up on a lot of other hyenas (61 to be exact). South den sessions have become my favorite, as I know that I will get to see Sweet the destroyer win another of his daily battles. 

Fellow cubs are not safe from Sweet’s fury, they must be on high alert from an attack that can come at any moment! 

            I will never get sick of the sight of this tiny guy going bristle tailed with excitement and running pell-mell after grown hyenas, and I can’t wait to see the audacious adult he becomes. Who knows, he may become the first dominant male hyena (until he immigrates).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Clan Wars

If you have read this blog before, you're aware that spotted hyenas are extremely social creatures. A group of hyenas forms a clan, with whom they socialize, hunt, and mate. But how do we as researchers know which hyena is in which clan? And how can we draw the borders between clans when we can't actually talk to these animals?

The answer is Clan Wars.

A clan war is when two hyena clans duke it out, usually over a carcass or a disputed border. The hyena version of a war involves gathering a clan and running towards the rival clan, chasing them away from the object in contention. The clans chase each other back and forth several times, and then one clan retreats, the other declaring victory. It can get violent, with hyenas harming and even killing those in rival clans. Clan wars over territory let us draw borders between territories and figure out who is in which clan, even for individuals who we don't see all that often.

The Serena camp witnessed one of these rare events on the morning of July 7 over a zebra carcass. We were doing obs at the North communal den when Waffles (WAFL), the matriarch of North, arrived carrying half a zebra.  This was our first clue that something was up. Later that morning we tracked Raleigh (RALI) about 200m west of the den, where we were in for a surprise.

There were a bunch of Happy Zebra hyenas eating the other half of the zebra. The carcass was definitely in North territory, which meant that Happy Zebra was very obviously trespassing, and given their behavior, they knew it. Everyone was looking towards the den where the North hyenas were located.

Happy Zebra looking towards North.
Two North males, Raleigh and Pondicherry (PNDI), tried to run the Happy Zebra clan off the carcass, but were not successful. 
Raleigh and Pondicherry feed on the carcass until Happy Zebra takes the carcass back.

Eventually, several more North hyenas showed up, and it became a proper clan war. 
North clan runs off Happy Zebra.

North ran at Happy Zebra, and Happy Zebra ran at North. Hyenas on both sides were bristle-tail social sniffing, and it got tricky to keep track of who was who in the tall grass.

Happy Zebra charges at North, then North charges at happy Zebra, then Happy Zebra charges at North again.
Happy Zebra eventually retreated away, and North took possession of the carcass. Eight individuals ate and wandered around the carcass. Raleigh and Pondicherry were still there, hanging at the edges of the gathering and being chased by females if they got too close. Katana (KATA), another male, was slightly more tolerated, and was permitted to eat at the carcass. After a while most of the hyenas laid down in the grass to sleep off the morning's excitement, and we left the scene to find our next hyena hijinks.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science