Monday, October 16, 2017

Play behavior in spotted hyenas

Play serves a lot of functions for young mammals such as development of motor skills involved in sexual reproduction, hunting, or fighting and development of social bonds or social skills. Most importantly, it's super cute. 

First, the "play face": It's easy to tell apart real aggression from play because hyenas express what I call the "play face". It's the same expression your dog has when it's feeling playful! Play can also be identified by overly exaggerated movements and the absence of aggressive vocalization or aggressive postures. Look for these clues in the photos below!

Object play: Object play is one type of play that involves playing with physical objects, like a stick. Cubs will wrestle with sticks and play catch-me-if-you-can. 

Poop is always great to play with because it smells great. These cubs below are having a poop party and are rolling in fresh elephant poop.

Playing with mom: Mom is one of the first adult hyenas that little cubs play with. Mom is often very tired making the play somewhat one-sided.

Sibling play: Early on, litter-mates show high rates of aggression as they establish dominance. By the time they're brought to the communal den, dominance is usually established and aggression is replaced by play.

Playing with subadults: Subadult hyenas often visit the den and play with the younger cubs. To keep it fair, the subadult often lays on their back and let the younger cubs attack them.

Water play: Even adult hyenas play! Hyenas love to have pool parties and swimming is almost always accompanied by plenty of rough-housing. 

For more photos and videos of hyenas swimming see: "Hyenas LOVE water" and "Splish Splash, I was taking a bath"

Play mounting: This a common behavior seen during play and helps male cubs practice mating behaviors.

Playing with your cohort: These newly den-independent cubs meet up for some play time. 

Playing with cognition apparatuses: Little cubs love to play with the box even if they're too small to open it. Climbing on top of it or inside of it are favorites.

The white tube is hard to resist playing with. This often means several "mistrials" while the hyena grabs the tube and runs around with it (instead of eating the meat from inside). Usually if I'm patient and let them get all their plays out they eventually calm down and participate in the trials like good little hyenas.

Grad student Tracy Montgomery is investigating play as part of her dissertation research. Check out her website HERE!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A day in the life - Graduating

Dear Diary,

Today was a good day. I woke up cuddling my brother King Ghidorah. We began the graduation process a couple of weeks ago, so we don’t sleep at the den anymore. We found a great bush to sleep under, dug a couple of shallow depressions, and fell asleep snuggled close together for warmth. This bush is way better than the leaky one we found our first night alone, when of course it rained. We both woke up hungry and went in search for mom (Eremet). We found her wallowing in a mud pit. King, who was hungrier than I was, threw a squitter tantrum until she came out and let us nurse. King is dominant, so he got to nurse in preferred position, again.

This is my brother King, even though he's dominant, he's still my best friend and I love him.

After nursing and a quick nap, King and I found our favorite play buddy Trebuchet. Treb is older than us and knows all the places the cool older subadults hang out. We followed him around for a bit and played my favorite game, tug-of-war, with an old wildebeest beard. I won, and Treb got grumpy. He said he didn’t have time for us babies and loped off.

This is our good friend Treb. His jaw was broken when he was a cub, so he looks a little funny.

After that, King wanted to see the new babies at the den. Ragnarok and Asgard are the only den-dependent cubs right now, so they get all the attention. I remember when King and I used to get fussed over like that. Now only mom groans at us. Ragnarok and Asgard are still learning their rank and don’t know that King and I are higher up than they are. Sometimes, they accidentally aggress onto us, and I have to put them in their place. King says it’s just part of the learning process, but I think it’s annoying! The babies are really cute though, and I can never stay grumpy for long.

Here is Ragnarok and Asgard, getting groomed by their mom Sawtooth. How could you stay angry at those tiny faces!

After visiting the cubs, we returned to our bush to write in our diaries. Mom says that tonight she will take us hunting, I can’t wait! My favorite is baby wildebeest, but the migration just ended, so we will be lucky to get a Thommy or Impala. Mom is an amazing hunter though, and I can’t wait to be as good as her one day. I bet I’ll be ever better than King, who’s such a momma’s boy he can’t do anything without her.

Anyway, it’s nap time and I’m getting sleepy. I’ll write all about tonight’s hunt tomorrow.

- Drogon 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Circle of Life

If you follow this blog, you probably remember my post in August about Rangsang, one of our South Clan hyenas, taking down a baby wildebeest. This next post will also be about Rangsang, but focusing on a very different aspect of her life.

One day, not too long witnessing the hunt, we pulled up to the South communal den and went about our usual business of identifying and getting locations for all of the hyenas. All of a sudden, Rangsang came walking out of the den. My co-RA Emily and I were surprised to see her there, as usually only mothers who are nursing cubs go into the den itself. We made a mental note to keep an eye out and see if Rangsang has cubs.

We waited. And waited. Every time we went to the South den, Rangsang was there, sacked out in the den. But there was no sign of little black cubs head poking in the den. Three weeks went by, and we were getting a bit desperate.

Then one day, we found Rangsang sacked out in a den a few hundred meters from the communal den. She had moved her (still alleged at this point) babies to a natal den. This is unusual, but not unheard of. We waited in anticipation for her cubs to appear, but no one emerged from the den.

Rangsang on the left with a friend.
Every time we went to South Territory, we would stop by Rangsang's natal den. We would always see her there, usually hanging out with a friend. Deathstar would often stop by, as would Firefly and Honor Harington. Every time Rangsang would be blocking the den, shooting us looks of disdain as we tried to see her cubs.

Finally it happened. On September 12, Emily and I drove up to Rangsang's den to find several hyenas lounging about. Rangsang, Java, Kapuas River, Gili Island, Sea Biscuit, and Akita were all there. And two little black cubs were poking their heads out of the den.

Little Black Cubs!

In the Mara, there is death and there is life. Last month I saw Ransang take the life of an animal. And this month I saw how she produced two new lives. Sometimes in the field we get desensitized to what we see everyday and forget how awe-inspiring the world is. Getting to see the circle of life in action has given me back my sense of appreciation and wonder.

So, without further ado, I would like you to meet the newest additions to South Clan, Vera Rubin (VERA) and Jeanne Altmann (JANN).

Rangsang nursing JANN while VERA plays

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