Sunday, December 30, 2018

An insider's look on IDing hyenas: Do you see what I see?

“Now that’s a beautiful shrimp”
TOPH: With her "beautiful" shrimp.

“There's straight line!
KENY! Who appears to have a straight line of dots across his side.
Of course a huge part of our job is identifying the hyenas based on their spot patterns. When I first came out to the field, all hyenas looked exactly the same. I had no idea how I would possibly be able to identify individuals. Now, when I see hyenas, I'm amazed by not only how their spots differ, but also how even faces, colors, and shapes are unique -- and personalities of course! Though, lucky for us, its spots never change -- from birth to death a hyena's spot pattern is it's finger print...and our key to success.

Some hyenas, like Shooter, have multiple unique patterns.

Shooter has a bean on his left side! 
And a beautiful paw print on his right!

Usually we agree on what we see, but often we totally disagree. Take Toothless for example!
On Toothless, Jess (pink) uses a "squiggle language" to ID her, while I (blue) always see a smiley face. Jess doesn't even notice this "face" I see and I would have never noticed her "language".

ANA's heart (fitting with her warm personality)

A batman logo on little NIZA 

A bottle on OMHA

A question mark on QEST!

Making the dots into shapes helps me tremendously for IDing, while simultaneously making obs so much fun. On hyenas I'll often see animal patterns -- like a crab on CHOW -- or shapes -- like a house on LOBI. Every time I see a hyena I'm searching it for something weird and unique to help me remember it for the next time. With our cub boom going on now...and spots beginning to form, it's been great fun trying to find cool patterns on our new young NIZA (batman logo) above.

So....what do you see?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Carcass and a Clan War: Every Hyena Researcher's Dream

The Mara has a wonderful way of knowing exactly what you want and keeping it from you. Whether that thing is rain (yes there are times when we’re literally begging for rain), to have an uneventful drive back to camp without surprise elephants, or an exciting carcass session after seemingly endless obs periods without anything eventful, if the Mara hears that you want something, she (yes the Mara is a woman) will do her best to keep it from you. Except for one recent incident.
            Last month was characterized by obs period after obs period of the same old routine. This is not to sound ungrateful by any means, every day in the Mara is unbelievable and a true blessing, but from a research standpoint the hyenas weren’t giving us much to work with. Not to mention the overall lack of rain (and thus lack of mornings in) was leaving all of us exhausted and in need of something new and exciting. That wonderful new and exciting thing practically fell into our laps on November 16th. Earlier that day I had been talking with Allie about how tired we were and how I wouldn’t be upset if it ended up raining that evening since “the Mara hasn’t really given us anything exciting lately.” A few hours later, to our disappointment the rain never came and we went out for evening obs. We were about to wrap up our den session at one of the Talek West den when we hear one hyena whoop in the distance and all of our adult females at the den (Pisces, Atacama, Amazon, and Hilton Hotel) tore off in the direction of the whoops. Soon after their departure we heard a chorus of whoops coming from that same direction, became rather curious, and decided to check out what all the excitement was about.
            To our surprise and delight, we found that Ziti and some other Talek West males had just brought down a full grown wildebeest. However, despite their best efforts to feed the clan, they made one crucial mistake. They had killed the wildebeest right on the borders of Talek West and KCM territory. We figured it was only a matter of time before some KCM hyenas heard foreign whoops on their territory boundary and came to investigate. So we stayed to find out, and sure enough, no more than 5 minutes after our arrival we saw the first of many KCM hyenas – lead by their fearless matriarch Princess Buttercup – come loping down the hill. What ensued was a clan war, but this time territory lines were not the only thing at stake. This time the winning clan also got a fresh (and fairly untouched by hyena standards) wildebeest.
            For the next 45 minutes in the pitch black of the Mara night with only our headlights and dying MagLites to aid us, we watched each clan strategically rush and route the other to gain brief access to the wildebeest carcass. For most of the clan war it seemed like KCM was winning, which we speculate was due to the fact that they had a solid and established matriarch to lead the charge while Talek West for the most part fumbled in their power vacuum. That is, until Decimeter, one of the daughters of the recently deceased Buenos Aires arrived on the scene. With Decimeter there Talek West was seemingly more eager to make stronger and more frequent charges toward KCM and secure longer stretches of time on the carcass. While this one instance isn’t enough data for us to conclude that Decimeter is the new Talek West matriarch, it certainly allows us to speculate that at long last, the power vacuum is starting to disappear.
            55 hyenas and 3 exhausted research assistants later, the clan war finally concluded, however the winner remained unclear. To our knowledge the clan boundaries haven’t changed, and at the end of 45 minutes the wildebeest had been reduced to nothing more than a hollow hide and bones. The entire drive back to camp we couldn’t stop gushing about how much data the past 45 minutes had given us and how serendipitous it was that it all practically fell into our laps. Despite being absolutely exhausted by the events of the past 45 minutes, upon our hour late return to camp all of us couldn’t wait to wake up early the next morning and commence the obs process all over again. That’s the great thing about the Mara, while she withheld from us what we initially wanted, she ended up giving us something so much better.

Due to restrictions on the size of the file the website allows us to upload, I was only able to upload a minute long video of some of the highlights from the first 10 minutes of the session. I apologize for the brevity, but I hope it suits all of your possible hyena carcass/clan war needs.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science