Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Trip to Nairobi

So something a little different this week, I am in Nairobi instead of the Mara! We come to Nairobi periodically to get supplies and various chores done and this post will tell you exactly what that entails.

Two of our primary reasons to come to Nairobi is to see the mechanic and get more liquid nitrogen (LN2) for our biological samples. We have mechanics where we live in the Mara, but sometimes the cars need a lot more love than they can find locally. We usually drop the car off first thing when we get to Nairobi, and the car generally dictates when we can leave for the Mara. We also need to refill our LN2 tanks to keep our samples frozen. For that we make a long trek to downtown Nairobi to get them refilled, but it’s well worth it for the data they contain!

Grocery shopping is another chore that happens in Nairobi. We can get some things locally, but items such as cheese, meat, and specific fruits and veggies come exclusively from the city. These aren’t necessities of course, but it sure is nice to have bacon with breakfast once in a while! By the end of the trip our cruiser is loaded with bags and bags of provisions, and the days after a Nairobi trip are filled with delicious artery-clogging meals! (Which let me be clear, our meals are ALWAYS delicious, but having cheese again after some time without it is wonderful.)

The Hub Mall, where we go for groceries, mpesa, and more!
These three things are the main reasons we come to the city, but there are definitely a ton of other smaller chores that need to get done too. We refill our mpesa, a sort of electronic bank account, we check the mail, and we pay rent. We’re fortunate enough to be able to rent out a small cottage in the suburb of Karen, so we have a home base for all our operations while we’re here. We also have to keep our immigration process moving along, so we will frequently go to the downtown offices to make sure that’s going smoothly as well. These are all things we’ve done this trip, and there’s even more besides that! I won’t bore you with the details but there’s never a dull moment in Nairobi.
Downtown Nairobi
This trip has been unusually long, two and a half weeks, because of work that needed to be done on the car. Thankfully though we are at last heading home tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, Nairobi is a fun and interesting change of pace to have, but after a while I just want to get back to the Mara and the hyenas! Wish me luck for a safe journey back tomorrow!   

Friday, September 14, 2018

No work and all play

While on our morning observation yesterday, Benson and I had the joy of finding 5 hyenas on top of a very dead, very putrid vulture. While looking through our binoculars to ensure no subtle behaviors were missed, we were simultaneously trying (and failing) to cover our noses from the horrible smell. However, the hyenas didn’t seem to mind the smell, in fact they seemed to enjoy it. At first, it was difficult to tell if the hyenas had acquired the bird with intent to eat it, or if they were merely playing with it. Behaviors that we would typically classify as aggressions (e.g. snaps, bites, chases, and lunges) appeared to be being exhibited, but the recipient of the behavior never exhibited the submissive behaviors typically seen after an aggression (e.g. laying ears against the head, grinning, giggling, defensive parrying). With hyenas with ranks all across the board, it was quite odd at first to not see any submissive behaviors being displayed from the lower ranking individuals. In fact, it appeared that all five individuals (Arby’s, Athi, Complex, Eowyn, and Richard Hatch) were all excitedly vying for their turn to roll in the carcass and cover themselves in the smell of dead bird. After witnessing a few interactions that we initially thought were aggressive in nature, we were able to discern that these hyenas were indeed playing with not only each other but also the vulture carcass.

Play behavior is commonly seen during the development of mammalian species and is typically seen in juveniles. Adult social play has been observed in multiple mammalian species, including spotted hyenas (Estes, 2012). Play behaviors are often high energy – e.g. running or chasing, and overall result in a net loss of energy for the individual(s) involved. So why waste the energy, especially in this case where there was a seemingly perfect energy source present? Since it’s so initially costly, it’s thought that play behaviors function to fine tune animals to situations they will experience later in life (Nunes et al. 2002). In a gregarious animal like the spotted hyena, social play, like we saw yesterday, probably functions to establish relationships with other individuals in the social group (Holmes 1994, 1995). It’s also thought that certain play behaviors allow the players to strengthen their motor skills (Nunes et al. 2002) so that they’re better equipped to deal with situations in which those behaviors could help the individual defend themselves, territory, or a kill (in the case of hyenas). As for the function of rolling in a dead bird, it’s possible we’ll ever know. Maybe the smell is just as enticing to hyenas as it is revolting to us!

Complex and Richard Hatch appear to lunge at Arby's, who leaps away from their playful advance. 

Everyone (not so patiently) waits for their turn to roll in the dead vulture.

Athi and Richard Hatch chase Arby's in circles around the dead vulture.

Hyena play pile!

Arby's playfully lunges at Athi while Richard Hatch sticks sticks his nose under Arbys' tail.

It's hard to be upset about the smell of the dead vulture when this is providing the lighting for the whole scene. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

For all your awkward nursing photo needs

Yep, you guessed it! Today's post is an ode to hyena mothers all around the globe! Let's face it, we don't give our moms enough credit for putting up with all of our shenanigans. Hyena moms are no different... except that each of their cubs is born with a full set of razor sharp teeth (as though motherhood wasn't difficult enough). So today, I've gathered together my favorite collection of nursing photos to demonstrate the plight of a spotted hyena mom. Shall we begin?

Here we have the classic "mom is a jungle gym, but also, I'm hungry!"

Although, sometimes you're in the middle of playing with mom and you realize you're exhausted. So you use her as a body pillow while she stares woefully off into the distance, wondering if she'll know the meaning of a peaceful nap ever again.

Let's take a minute to enjoy our beloved mom, Smooth Criminal. She's nursing Esio Trot and BFG (our Roald Dahl books lineage).

Typical nursing photo, am I right?

Now, juxtaposition that with Anatolian and her two cubs, Toph Beifong and Naga. While Spotted Hyena cubs will nurse until they're roughly a year and a half old, at a certain age it begins to look a little silly. These two are almost the size of their mother!

Clearly she's ready for them to "leave the nest"

We've made it to my personal favorite, Clever Girl with her cub PUDD (short for The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, an Agatha Christie novel).

After spending hours of your day nursing in various awkward scenarios, sometimes all you want to do is curl up in a nice patch of grass away from it all.

But then you look over...

And remember that it's worth sore nipples.

And you can't help but crawl in close for a good snuggle and a nap. After all, sometimes it's the little one's turn to be the pillow.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Morning Commute in the Maasai Mara

Here in the Mara, my fellow researchers and I wake up in the dark and head out to catch our hyenas at their most active time – dawn. As such, we see a very different side of the Mara compared to what many tourists see. In the early light of golden hour, we see the animals just as they begin to stir from sleep or head home from an adventurous night. Whether they’re coming or going, we see our favorite Mara animals on their morning commute.

First we have the infamous Serena Camp leopard, slinking home from an evening out on the town. Regardless of how wild his evening was, he never has a spot out of place.

Of course in any commute, there are those who oversleep. Here we have the bat-eared fox still in its fluffy pajamas, sound asleep at home.

Next up is the lioness, stopping quickly at the local coffee shop to refresh herself after a long evening of hunting and bonding with her sisters.

Here come the Topi mothers eager to drop the little ones off at daycare.

The Guineafowl, always running late, aren’t afraid to fly their way through morning traffic in the fast lane. Watch out!

Not ones to complain, the wildebeest are experts at this commute. They travel along in seemingly endless groups and lines, happily munching on a breakfast of grass, grass, and more grass.

No morning commute would be complete without at least one aggressive driver. This hint of road rage is provided eagerly by lions the each morning.

Last, but not least, we find the hyenas. Quick to rise and get a start on their day, the cubs bound and play to wake up their tired muscles for their morning lessons in hunting, fighting, and mating behavior.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Power Struggle Continues

If you read the blog regularly, you know that a couple months ago BUAR, our Talek West matriarch, was declared dead. Since then we’ve been watching the hyenas as they figure out who the new matriarch is, which has involved a lot of injuries for our Talek West females.

As I previously mentioned, the most likely candidate for new matriarch would be one of BUAR’s daughters. The line of ascension should naturally fall to BUAR’s youngest daughter of age, NANO. However, the other females won’t let NANO take over so easily. NANO’s older sisters might also want to become matriarch, and it’s also possible that someone not even related to BUAR might make their play.

We’ve seen a lot of evidence of the power struggle going on in the weeks since BUAR’s passing, mostly in the form of wounds. The females will decide the new matriarch by fighting it out, and we’ve seen many physical results from those battles. KNOT, a BUAR kid, has been limping on one of her back legs almost every time we’ve seen her lately, possibly indicating she’s been going for the crown. DECM, KNOT’s older sister and a popular contender for the throne, has also had her fair share of damage. At times we’ve seen DECM not even putting weight on one of her legs. Even middle ranking members of the clan, like MAA and MGTA have battle scars. MAA is totally missing the top half of her ear now, and MGTA has a new ear slit that comes in very handy when IDing her. Whether they’re supporting someone for matriarch or trying to ascend themselves we aren’t sure, but hopefully we’ll see who the victor is soon.
KNOT, the future matriarch?
Will it be KNOT or DECM, continuing the dynasty of their mother?
DECM, our new queen?
Or will a new queen rule the clan, like MAA or MGTA?
MAA, the dark horse
Stay tuned.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science