Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Hungry Hungry Hyenas

I’d been in the Mara for almost two months, and while I’d seen a myriad of incredible events (check out my last blog post for reference), I had yet to see my beloved hyenas hunting. Was this too rare, I wondered. Would I ever see hyenas hunting?

That’s when I got a call from safariLIVE, who said “your hyenas are hunting a hippo, get over here!” Grad student Julie and I raced to North territory where we saw the last 10 minutes of an epic battle. Our North clan had spotted this young hippo in the early light of dawn, and fought tooth and nail to separate it from its mother. 

Hershey's doesn't mind the spray of cold river water.
They chased the hippo across land and lugga while it struggled to find water deep enough to dissuade our hyenas. What this hippo didn’t expect, however, is that our hyenas can swim. Where’s the Goat, Wallflower, and young Hershey’s bravely waded out deeper and deeper, dedicated to catching their prey, as matriarch Waffles and several of our young cubs watched from the shore.

Wallflower closes in on the hippo. 

We raced alongside, wildly IDing and snapping photos as our hearts pounded. Finally, the hippo had come to a crossroad. Its only option, its only shot, was to cross a wide, bare patch of land into the river on the other side. For a brief moment it would be incredibly vulnerable, but that river was the only spot deep enough to keep the hyenas off.

The hippo heads for deep water, but Where's the Goat is close behind.
We stopped the car and watched with bated breath as the hyenas lined up on either side of this bare patch of land. The hippo took one false start and we gasped... and then it was off! It tore across the land, eyes not wavering from the safe haven of deep water just in front. As though the checkered flag waved, the hyenas leapt forward and raced to catch the hippo. Hershey’s vaulted into the air, teeth snapping…. And the hippo got free! It splashed into the river and moved as quickly as possible, leaving North clan in the waves, and us researchers in astonished silence.

Hershey's and Wallflower getting a quick bite in before the hippo's escape.

Thank you so much to Jamie Paterson and the safariLIVE crew for this tip. 

It's always nice to see a familiar face

As a RA, one of the biggest parts of the job is learning (and eventually memorizing) the left and right spot patterns of every hyena in our study clans. For Talek, that’s approximately 250 individuals, or 500 spot patterns. While our hyenas are often good models and are more than willing to strike a pose and show us their beautiful spots, sometimes they like to throw curveballs our way. They can be covered in mud from shoulder to butt, lying in the comfiest ditch known to Crocuta-kind, or just be feeling stubborn and refuse to get up when we approach them. When situations like this arise it’s helpful to have a few other tricks up your sleeve to help you figure out who you’re looking at. Luckily, many of our hyenas have distinct faces, facial features, and ear damage to help us out! Here are a couple of the individuals we can recognize just by looking at their faces; and then of course confirm with our handy-dandy spot binders.

Bug is one of our older cubs at our Talek West den. When he was younger something happened to his left eye and damaged his tapetum lucidum. As a result he has no eye-shine from his left eye. Whether or not this impedes his vision we don’t know, but whenever we pull up and see a face with only one eye shining back at us we can always be sure it’s Bug!

Pitumurca (a.k.a. Mouse)
Pitumurca was the first hyena I was able to recognize by their face. Before we knew who his mother was we called him Mouse because his ears reminded us of little mouse ears when they poked out of the den. After we figured out that his mother was Helios, it became very clear that he inherited his mother's ears. In addition to his mouse ears, Pitumurca also has unique facial patterning. The black on his face only surrounds his nose whereas the black on the faces of the other Talek West cubs extends up to their lower eyelids (see Bug's photo for an example).


Taurus is an adult male of our KCM clan, whom I lovingly call “my little elephant seal”. In addition to having a lovely “M” pattern on his left shoulder, Taurus has a face that resembles that of the largest pinnipeds, making him easy to ID in situations like this where he’s obscured by tall grass.  


Satyr is one of our lovely KCM adult ladies with a face that could melt the hearts of the even the most adamant hyena haters. Her distinctive mohawk, almond shaped eyes, and reddish  fur make her one of the easier KCMers to ID in addition to her distinctive ear damage and arch of spots on her left shoulder.


Nassau is an immigrant male in our KCM clan whose spots are remarkably faded. Having faded spots and living in an area with tall grass makes him really difficult to ID. Luckily for us, Nassau has a distinctive droop in his lower right lip that exposes part of his gum-line. While we’re not sure exactly how or why his lip is droopy, we do know that it makes him easy to ID!


Baloo just might be the derpiest hyena Fisi Camp has ever known. With crooked ears too large for their head Baloo stands out among her Pond counterparts, making her easy to ID in the endless sea of grass that is her home range.


Parcheesi is the winner of most unique ear damage for the Talek hyenas. While acquired in a not-so-beautiful fashion, we believe her ear damage makes her stunning and unique and is immensely helpful for identifying her when she's hiding in tall grass. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

We have some sad news to share from Talek Fisi Camp. On July 14th we discovered that BUAR (Buenos Aires), the Talek West matriarch, has passed away. She was one of our collared females and during morning observations, her collar was heard giving off the specific signal that is emitted when the hyena dies. Her collar was eventually retrieved without sign of a body, but it seems pretty clear that BUAR will not be coming back.
BUAR in her prime
Eight and a half years old, BUAR likely did not die of old age but for the past few months we have noticed some odd behavior from her. She stopped nursing her second youngest cub SLUG, who thankfully was able to find nourishment from his sister JOUL, and the last time we saw her youngest cub LUME, the cub was not looking to be in the best health. We aren’t certain, but this may be an indication that BUAR’s health was starting to fail.     
JOUL, one possible contender
NANO, the rightful heir
Now that BUAR is gone, Talek West will need a new matriarch. The line of succession technically falls to her youngest adult daughter, NANO, but we highly doubt that things will be so clear cut. BUAR left behind older daughters that may not be so keen to let the throne fall to their younger sister. Likely individuals for the new matriarch include DECM, JOUL, and KNOT, but it’s also possible that the new matriarch won’t be a daughter of BUAR’s at all. We’ll be watching very closely over the next few months to see the power struggles that emerge between those vying to come out on top.

BUAR left behind eight living offspring, all with the “unit of measurement” theme. She was a strong matriarch, and she will be greatly missed.   

Friday, July 13, 2018

Final blog and thank yous

It’s been 15 days since I’ve left Fisi Camp and it already feels like a lifetime has passed. As cliché as it sounds, it’s difficult to put in words how much this experience has changed my life. I came into the project in the hopes that I would gain valuable field experience for graduate school and more importantly to see if I enjoyed fieldwork. I can safely say that both goals have been accomplished and then some.
Not only did I love field work, I gained so much knowledge about so many things: How to run a camp, check a car, unstick a car from the mud, work with our camp staff, get along with a small group of people for an extended period of time, and a lot more. It’s safe to say that I am not the same person that left for Kenya a year ago, and I would like to thank a few people for doing that.

To all my co RA’s: Morgan, Mary, Leah, Allie, Emily B. Thank you for all the laughs, pulling me out of the mud, and for showing me new ways to think.

To the grad students: Lily, Connie, Olivia, and Julie. Thank you guys for letting me be apart in your projects and for the advice about life and grad school.

To the guys: Joseph, Chief, Samwell, Lesinqo, Steven, and Sasine. You guys are what make camp so special. You all don’t just keep camp maintained and make amazing meals, you opened up your hearts and let me become apart of your family.

Kay and Dee: you two are the most dedicated, hardest working, hilarious duo I’ve ever met. You both set the bar for what a scientist should be like, thank you for giving me this amazing experience.

Benson: You are a truly rare and incredible human being. You’re ability to teach anyone with such patience, kindness, and encouragement is a true gift. How different of a world it would be if everyone taught like you. Thank you for being a rock solid friend and teacher.

Now that I’m back in the States I will be starting graduate school this August in Dr. Martin Muller’s lab at the University of New Mexico. Where I’ll be getting my PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology studying chimpanzees in the Kibale National Park in Uganda. Undoubtedly, the skills I’ve gained from my year in the hyena project will prove invaluable for this and all of my future endeavors.

“ I think I’m quite ready for another adventure!” --- Bilbo, The Return of the King.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Mapping the Mara

After finishing my first year of my PhD, I was eager to do some field work! Fortunately, one of my lab mates is collaborating with a remote sensing institute to make a land cover map of the Mara. Creating this map requires some on-the-ground work to verify which habitat types are at specified locations. This provided a great opportunity for me and my lab mate, Olivia, to collect some data and help create a map we will use for our dissertation research.

Our goal is to visit as many locations around the Mara as possible and record information about the ground cover to use as training data to build the map. Instead of following hyenas at dawn and dusk, we collect our data during the day, traveling to our randomly generated points. Most of the points we travel to are in grasslands.

However, we need to make sure all cover types are represented in our dataset, so we also search for rarer habitat types, like riverine forest and wetlands. Luckily, some of the best riverine forest is right in camp, along the Talek River.

Olivia collecting data for our mapping project on the Talek River near camp. 

Here I am, checking out the vegetation across the river.

Most of our days involve a lot of looking at plants and describing the ground cover. Sometimes we have company, like a thirsty elephant who stopped by to take a drink in the pond at one of our points. Luckily, we were finished with that point.

Sometimes, we find that our point is already occupied. Yesterday, we came upon a cheetah resting in the patch of shrubs where we planned on stopping. After awing at how lucky we were to find a cheetah, we decided to find another point.

Driving around and during the day also gives us great birding opportunities. Here are some of my favorite birds we’ve seen so far:

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Lilac-breasted Roller

Usambiro Barbet

This project has been a great opportunity to explore new areas of the Mara, giving us a broader perspective on the landscape and many chances to see amazing wildlife. I look forward to continuing the rest of the ground-truthing here in Talek and in the Mara Triangle!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018


When bright-eyed bushy-tailed research assistants arrive in Kenya, they're ready to learn: how to identify hyenas, how to operate the tracking equipment, how to change a tire, how to speak a little bit of Swahili, how to drive a stick-shift. But, like many of the skills research assistant gain in the field, learning to drive in the Mara isn't going to be as simple as it sounds...

Driving a manual car on a paved road is one thing. Driving an ancient 2-ton diesel Land Cruiser is another thing. And driving said Land Cruiser off-road in tall grass during the rainy season? To say the least, it builds character.
At the end of obs, we thought we could beat the storm back to camp...
we thought wrong.
When the rains come, this grassland turns into a swamp.
I guess we won't make it to North Clan's den today after all.
To avoid rocks, swamps, tall grass, and the occasional drop-off, it's easiest to stick to the tracks. Unfortunately, we're not the only ones who think so. Believe it or not, traffic can get pretty rough...

The migration is here!

Baboons kick it in the drive to the Serena Lodge.

The cars move aside to let the queen pass... but she's not alone!
These buffalo aren't too keen on us. It's up to us to find a different way to
Happy Zebra Clan's den before the sun sets!
As this herd of elephants passes, a young calf turns to face us, swings his trunk wildly,
and lets out a high-pitched little trumpet. He thinks he's quite intimidating.
On this hot day, we didn't have the heart to make these warthogs abandon
their mud puddle on the side of the road.
A male ostrich takes off running from the road.
Patience is a virtue...
A pair of black-backed jackals have found a way around the tall grass.
We'll wait our turn.
A kori bustard shows off!
Always good to see a bat-eared fox!
On the way into Talek camp, we luckily spotted this little guy before rolling over him!
We scooted him off the track, and he went on with his day, only moderately irritated by us.
I like to think I have a special relationship with Billie Jean (North Clan female).
She seems pretty relaxed around us, and even let me get a peek into her den to see
her little black cubs one day! The downside is that she trusts us too much to move
out of the way of the car. When she sacked out in front of us, I knew we would we'd
need to reroute.

Even in Nairobi, we face some unexpected obstacles...
Driving down the escarpment on the way back to the Mara is
a little anxiety-inducing...
Cars aren't the only traffic in Nairobi. This sheep seems to
know what s/he's doing though.
Even in the busiest parts of Nairobi, it's important to
look out for cattle.

Sharing the road with the wildlife (and cattle, sheep, and goats) can be a pretty great thing though. The Mara is my favorite place in the world to be behind the wheel, because you never know what amazing surprise you'll stumble across next!

An unexpected, and eternally appreciated, PANGOLIN SIGHTING!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science