Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Happy Halloween!

We all know that hyenas are adorable.
But they also can look pretty fearsome at times. In honor of the Halloween season, here are some hyenas showing off their spooky side.
MGTA staring right into your soul
First we have MGTA who decided to go for a dye job. She looks fabulous with her new red hairdo, combining the practicality of consuming large quantities of meat while also being fashionable.

We also have ZITI who has a look similar to MGTA’s bloody style but with the extra flair of a blood streak along his side. He’s really into the holiday spirit.
ZITI shows off his own unique style
Taking it a step further is CYBR, who in addition to a little bit of dried blood is also showing off her pearly whites, in a look that is both intimidating and fierce.
CYBR being sassy
The grand winner of the spooky look contest though has got to be KENG. While taking a nap one fine day, she forgot to close her eyes completely which resulted in this terrifying picture. I certainly wouldn’t want to come across her in a dark lugga!
KENG being spooky while sacked out
All these hyenas definitely look pretty scary, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day they can also be pretty cute. Thanks for reading, and have a Happy Halloween!   

Saturday, October 27, 2018

On losing a loved one...RIP TEDY

The craziest yet most amazing part about this job is its unpredictability. There are days where it rains day and night and we are bored out of our minds just itching to go for a drive. And then there are days in the field where you find elephant tusks in the middle of a territory and alert the rangers, follow mating hyenas for extended periods, find a new tiny black cub, see a hyena you thought was long dead, watch your hyenas hunt down a baby wildebeest, or maybe even get a call that a hyena was found dead in the Mara river.

Yesterday, while enjoying our French toast and coffee after morning obs, we got that call. We had no idea if it was a hyena from our clan, though it seemed likely since the body was found in the middle of our North territory. My heart instantly sank hearing this. Though I try not to pick favorites, North clan is definitely the clan I know best at this point and it is a particularly exciting time to be a North clan member since there are many tiny cubs running around.

So we do what any hyena researcher would do, grab our cameras, ensure the necropsy kit is in the cruiser, and set off for Hippo Pools and Toilet, the spot where the hyena was reportedly seen. We roll up and since that spot is an area where anyone can exit their vehicles, we start to take a look around. Eagle-eyed Jess spots the hyena first, its body floating in a shallow part of the edge of the river. We call a ranger, since we will need one to escort us down to the river’s edge, and wait.

I can’t lie it was a pretty amazing experience summiting down to the side of the river to photograph and examine the hyena. Once we got close, it was without a question that we knew this hyena very well. That circle on her hind left leg was unmistakable…it was indeed TEDY. We were all totally stunned. TEDY is WAFL’s (our North clan’s matriarch) best friend. Up until recently, TEDY was at the den every single day playing with Waffle’s cubs. She LOVED them. She would spend the entire time trying to get them to play with her. Groaning over them…picking them up by their neck…moving from cub to cub. She was funny because it seemed like she didn’t quite know how to make them love her but she wanted them to SO badly. We always knew when TEDY was arriving at the den because she would run in bristletail and immediately aggress onto someone before making her way over to the cubs. Kate, Jess and I always joke that TEDY is Waffle’s bodyguard. Making sure no one messes with her. Interestingly, in the past couple weeks, SOUP as well as her cubs LOBI and CHOW, the next highest ranking females, have been acting aggressive toward Waffle’s and her son Hershey’s. Perhaps this is because TEDY has not been around to help Waffle’s defend her throne…or perhaps Waffle’s is simply ready to give it up and focus on raising her two new cubs.

Kate, the bold soul that she is, waded into the murky water full of hippo poop to flip the body over and examine for injuries. After taking tissue and hair samples from her body  as well as seeing that she did not have any obvious wounds, we had a moment of silence for her over the river. It was definitely a sad day over here on the Serena side, though we know it is all a part of the circle of life.

TEDY will definitely be missed. RIP.


Thursday, October 18, 2018


When many people come on safari their goal is to see all of the Big Five; lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. While the Mara has these to offer in abundance, many other animals reside here that tourists and research assistants alike hope to see but may never catch a glimpse of. These include rare animals such as the aardwolf, aardvark, African wild dog, zorilla, and honey badger, among others. Sightings of these creatures are rare and often a once in a lifetime experience. Here in Talek camp we recently had destiny on our side and had the rare, once in a lifetime chance to not only see one of the rarest animals in the Mara, but one of the most trafficked animals in the world – the pangolin.

The sweet, rare, ground pangolin 
Pangolins are mammals that reside throughout African and Asia. They are the only mammals covered entirely in keratin scales, which forms a sort of protective covering over their body. While these scales protect them from animals in their habitats that may do them harm, they are also the leading cause of their endangerment. Pangolin scales are used in eastern traditional medicine, to create love charms, and in East Africa local people believe that if they burn them they will keep predators away (https://arkive.org/ground-pangolin/smutsia-temminckii/). Pangolin scales possess no supernatural healing or magical properties, they are composed of keratin; much like our own hair and fingernails. In addition to being poached for their scales, pangolins are also hunted for their meat and are a popular item in the bushmeat trade (https://arkive.org/ground-pangolin/smutsia-temminckii/). In many cultures pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and is in high demand as a result. Despite the fact that all 8 species of pangolin (we saw the ground pangolin) are protected by both national and international law, their population numbers are plummeting due to the wildlife trade. Reports from 2011-2013 estimate that between 116,900 and 233,980 pangolins were killed in the trade. Many experts believe that these numbers only represent about 10% of the reported number of pangolins in the wildlife trade (https://www.worldwildlifefund.org/stories/what-is-a-pangolin). Due to the solitary nature of the pangolin, it is difficult for experts to come to accurate conclusions about their population status. In addition, attempts to breed pangolins in captivity have proved unsuccessful, as the animals in captivity have developed handicaps such as ulcers, pneumonia, and premature death (https://www.google.com/amp/s/metro.co.uk/2018/06/28/what-is-a-pangolin-and-why-are-they-poached-7666975/amp/).

Due their solitary nature and endangered status, seeing a pangolin is one of the most unique experiences one could hope for while in the Mara. Benson, the Kenyan RA who has been with the project for almost 10 years, has only seen a pangolin twice during his time with the project. The fact that we were able to see one of the most trafficked animals in the world alive, in its natural habitat, totally undisturbed by human presence was truly a blessing and a memory I think all of us will treasure forever.


Much like kids on the playground, when a spotted hyena male has a crush on a female he begins a complicated set of behaviors similar to flirting. Female spotted hyenas are larger, more aggressive, and socially dominant to males, so interested males must carefully follow a set of courting behaviors in order to gain favor with and avoid a good bite from females. These behaviors are sometimes antagonistic, sometimes submissive, and sometimes downright bizarre.

Courtship behavior often starts as it does in humans. A male will pick out a lady he finds particularly attractive and attempt to get close to her, even following her around in the hopes she’ll take a liking to him.
Watch our Sauer! He's right behind you!
One of the most common courting behaviors we see is called an “approach avoid”. This behavior looks exactly as it sounds- males will rapidly approach a female and then rapidly retreat. Because males are so nervous around these large-and-in-charge ladies, they will run away even if the females completely ignore them. If a male approaches a female several times from a distance (sometimes as far as 10m) and she does not attack him, he’ll get closer and closer to test the waters until she’s fed up and lunges him away. He’ll keep up this behavior, even after being attacked by a female, if he’s particularly infatuated. This is a way for males to assess how aggressive a female is feeling, and how receptive she is to his proximity.
Toledo realizing he's made a mistake as Whiz lunges toward him.

Once a male has approach-avoided his way up close to his female of choice, he will then perform some smaller, equally as frantic, behaviors to attract her attention. One of these behaviors is pawing ground and looks like a dog digging in the dirt. Males have interdigital (between toe) scent glands, and pawing the ground in the direction of a female serves to deposit his scent for the female to smell, much like a young boy making mud pies to gain the favor of his kindergarten crush. Next up is foreleg grooming. To ensure that his hair is looking nice and smooth, a male will begin licking his front legs in the direction of a female.
Leprechaun licks his foreleg.

Finally, if all has gone well and his selected lady seems receptive to this male’s particular style of flirting, he will perform the ultimate courting act- the bow. A male will approach his female, lift one foreleg, and cross it over the other. He then bows his head in the ultimate act of submission. We are incredibly lucky to have witnessed this behavior as it is one of the most bizarre and magical behaviors that hyenas perform.

Tune in to Kate's next post which will explore what happens when all of these behaviors are performed to perfection, and the female chooses her mate.

Szykman, M., Horn, R. C. Van, Engh, A. L., Boydston, E. E., & Holekamp, K. E. (2007). Courtship and mating in free-living spotted hyenas. Behaviour, 815-846.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Hyena Family!

While we research assistants here at the Mara Hyena Project consider the spotted hyena to be the best of all hyenas, did you know that there are other members of the hyena family? Keep reading to learn all about them!
You can guess where the striped hyena got it's name

First we have the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena). Striped hyenas are found commonly in arid regions, like deserts, scrublands, and grasslands. They are much more nomadic than spotted hyenas, and will generally hunt and forage alone, occasionally in pairs. It does have some social organization though, and maintains small family groups at communal dens. Striped hyenas are also more omnivorous than their spotted cousins, consuming not only meat but also some fruits and melons. They are more strictly nocturnal, and are rarely seen during the day. Conservation-wise the striped hyena is classified as “near threatened”, and its most present concern is habitat destruction.

A brown hyena standing tall

We also have the brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea). It is also found in drier climates, in many regions of southern Africa. The brown hyena is primarily a scavenger, feeding on the carcasses of large herbivores occasionally killing small animals for itself. It is arguably more social than the striped hyena, but still lives in small family groups with group sizes ranging from 4-14 individuals. Though they live together a den they scavenge solo. These hyenas have a “near threatened” conservation status, mostly stemming from local farmers blaming them for depredation of livestock despite the fact that they rarely kill anything themselves.

The might termite-eating tongue of the aardwolf
Lastly there is the most unique member of the hyena family, the aardwolf (Proteles cristata). It is the smallest of all the hyenas, and has a diet made up of chiefly termites. The aardwolf can consume up to 200,000 termites in a single night, and is so highly adapted to its diet that its teeth resemble pegs more so than sharp carnivore teeth. Aardwolves have been seen to track termite locations by sound, having very acute hearing to do so. It is also the least social of the hyenas, foraging alone and only interacting with a mate otherwise. Aardwolves are currently ranked “least concern” by the IUCN List of Threatened Species. Go aardwolves!

These three animals, along with the spotted hyena, make up the four species of the hyena family! I hope you enjoyed this little look at them all, and if you want more information about them be sure to check out the links below!

Sources and Further Reading:
Estes, R. D., 2012, The Behavior Guide to African Mammals, University of California Press, Berkeley, 611 p.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Burning up

There are two things field researchers here fear, floods and fire. While Talek camp has had our fair share of unfortunate floods (and flood scares) in the past, fire is not something we commonly deal with. While research assistants in Serena are very familiar with the burns prescribed by the management of the Mara Conservancy, prescribed burns are extremely uncommon our side of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. However, that all changed in early September when the first prescribed burn on our side of the park in many, many, years began. Rangers started the fire on the far southern end of the Reserve, near Keekorok Lodge. For the first few weeks we could only see the smoke from the flames from the plain outside of camp.
The early stages of the fire 
However, the fire burned longer than any of us were anticipating. And it wasn’t long until we could see the glow of the flames in the distance at dawn and dusk on our drives to and from camp. It was then that the air was filled with the distinctive smell of a grass fire; a smell similar to a bonfire but with a slightly sweet aroma. By mid-September the flames had crested the hills that border our southern-most territory and the area consumed by the fire stretched off to the south as far as the eye could see. The southern sky was constantly obscured by smoke, and the haze made observation periods in our southern territories difficult.

Smoke and haze from the fires to the south 

The main fire (one of three) from the top of a hill in our southern most territory 

By September 24th the fire had burned the hills of our southern-most territory. Then, as if sensing our anxiety and anticipation, burned itself out on the 25th. While it’s still unclear as to exactly why the burn here was prescribed, we can take many guesses as to why. 

The burned areas of our southern-most territory 

As scary as they may be, fires can do a lot of good for an ecosystem. Fires can help to manage weeds and other invasive plant species from choking out native plants and help restore nutrients to the soil. In fact, grassland communities and their inhabitants around the world have evolved to deal with fire. In a place like the Mara, where tall grass can end up obscuring tourists’ view of animals, a prescribed burn can also provide better wildlife viewing opportunities. Whatever the reason for this prescribed burn was, all of us in Talek camp are relieved and happy to know that the animals in our territories are safe and happy!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science