Saturday, November 24, 2018

Hyena Mock Elections: Talek West Edition

So we all know that hyenas don't go to high school. But what if they DID? For your enjoyment and amusement, I present hyena mock elections. Just like the good old high school days, except with bigger ears and more spots. 

Best All-Around: NANO
Nanometer is just the best. The daughter of the former matriarch, you'd think she would let all that power go to her head but that's simply not the case. Nanometer is a friend to all, perfectly content to just chill in the lugga or go for a nice wildebeest hunt. Yay NANO!

Class Clown: EPIC
When it comes to silliness, Epic takes the crown. Whether it be falling into den holes or tripping over his own feet, you can count on Epic to put a smile on your face. 

Best Eyes: JMBO
Enough said. Look at those beautiful brown eyes!

Best Hair: KESQ
Also self-explanatory, this old man still has some fly style!

Best Bromance: PITU and YUNI
Being that they're actual brothers, Pitumarca and Uyuni certainly have this category on lock! They can always be found together, and who knows? Maybe they'll even disperse together!

Biggest Drama King: MENO
Anemone can always be counted on to stir up trouble, just look at the menace in his eyes!

Most Likely to Stay in the Clan Forever: ZITI
Most male hyenas disperse from their natal clan at around age three, but not this guy! Eight years old and still going strong in Talek West, Ziti is here to stay!

Most Likely to Take Over the World: MGTA
You can just see the determination in Magenta's eyes, she is ready to take on the world. It may start in the Mara but who knows where she'll end. Be prepared.

Most Likely to Brighten Your Day: PCES
There is no one better at turning a frown upside down than Pisces. The second her adorable face shows up on the scene your day instantly becomes a winner.

Best Spots: HRTZ
And last but not least, the coveted Best Spots award goes to Hertz! Hertz can't be missed with that lovely loop on his side, and his spots are never muddled or dirty. Congratulations to Hertz!!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The transition from college life to field RA: An honest post

I’m officially four months into my stay here and cannot believe how quickly the time has gone. Honestly, even the most tiring and arduous of work days fly by. You get back from obs, eat breakfast, spend the day working and before you know it, it’s time for dinner, and then it’s time for obs again. It’s a circular lifestyle, but each day is unique. Truly, there is no such thing as a boring day in camp (except for maybe the two-week stint in August where we had rain nearly every day and could not take the car out).

However, this post isn’t about our daily routine, but rather a reflection on my transition out here. I just returned from a two-week Nairobi trip, which was the last thing I needed to be trained on before I could consider myself completed trained. Having finished this, I’ve been thinking a lot about my expectations vs. reality of this job, the transition from college life to this type of work, and the way I’ve grown as an individual in ways I did not expect.

For me, when I first heard about the position all I could think about were the hours I’d spend in the field…the hours I’d spend studying hyenas and seeing other wildlife, cruising around in the Masai Mara. A complete dream. And it is! I seriously have the best job ever. Ever. However, the time we spend chasing hyenas isn’t the half of our duties. For my personal development, I am grateful for this. I’m forced to be organized, have my brain actually turned on at all times, be an excellent communicator with my fellow RAs (and my closest friends) at both Serena and Talek camp, as well as being an effective communicator with everyone back in Michigan, working from afar to ensure this project runs smoothly.

I’ll give you the most recent example of the ways I’ve been pushed. Since I’m fresh from Nairobi…let’s talk about that.

Me and Benson in Nairobi!

A list of some things I did/RAs on the project frequently do.

1.     Drive alone on the left side of the road in a boat sized stick shift vehicle on busy streets with drivers that don't necessarily abide by the laws (or the lines--ha).
2.     Took an Uber alone for the first time in a foreign country (sounds simple, I know, but the first time, sure, I can admit I was a little nervous).
3.     Went to Immigration several times to handle our student passes and VISA renewal.
4.     Drove to the Kenyan Wildlife Service to pay for research passes and meet with government officials.
5.     Handled and exchanged large sums of cash for project costs.
6.     Had copies of car keys and mailbox keys made.
7.     Paid bills and called mechanics to handle things related to cottage maintenance.
8.     Spent many hours in many stores finding supplies for camp (such as massive jugs to hold water, new car batteries, pharmacy medications, re-stocking our food etc.)
9.     Communicated with our Nairobi mechanic about fixing the car during our stay.
10.  Filled the liquid nitrogen tanks.
11.  And of course (and more fun!) explored coffee shops and cafes in between.

Playing with the mechanic's pup.

Some of the purchased supplies for camp!

My point in listing all of these tasks is that so many of them are things that I’ve never imagined myself doing. In this two-week period, I proved so much to myself and what I am capable of handling. And these are only Nairobi related tasks!

During the drive home from Nairobi, I thought a lot about how the transition to this job was not an easy one. Some days have been really difficult and all I want to do is lie down and sleep the stress away. Other days have been some of the best of my life. So much is thrown at you right away and you cannot be crushed by the responsibility. Here on the ground, we must directly ensure the field sites run smoothly. Last year at this time, my biggest worry was if I would have enough time to go to the gym after class and study for a quiz before going out for drinks at a trivia bar. This morning, I woke up and the car was having battery problems and issues with the fuel gauge…problems that needed immediate resolutions. We solved these all before 9am. Last year, I might not have been awake by 9am. Here, we can’t procrastinate.

This job has even changed my personal organizational skills. I went from never making my bed, to being the person who makes her bed every day. Not only this, but I sweep my tent every day. A girl who cares about the cleanliness of the floor of her tent? Me!? Mom…are you reading this!? And even more shocking, I now have a full skin care routine of washing my face and moisturizing twice a day. Sometimes, I wonder, who the heck is this girl!? And I feel proud.

In four months, I’ve grown so much as a person. At 22 years old I’m proving to myself that I’m capable of handling so many responsibilities I hadn’t ever imagined.

And it has only been four months.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Teamwork makes the dream work

And so it was that on the 7th of November, Jessica Gunson - bright-eyed and bushy-tailed research assistant - set out for solo obs and stumbled upon a carcass session, turned high speed chase, turned lion-hyena interaction, turned SECOND carcass session.

At 6am, as I paused to take a sip of my coffee, I began to hear loud whooping and growling coming from down the road, in Happy Zebra territory. I stowed my travel mug and took off to investigate, heading off road and directly into a carcass session. It appears a low-ranking immigrant male had killed a wildebeest over night, and there were now 12 hyenas vigilantly standing by as subadult KNG feasted. Because this was solo obs, I quickly jumped into action. I pulled out our audio equipment (pictured below) to begin recording vocalizations for one of our graduate students. I simultaneously whipped out my camera to film behaviors, and grabbed my hyena ID book to start confirming the identity of the hyenas present.

Former RA Emily Nonnamaker captures hyena vocalizations at a carcass session
Suddenly, a whoop rang out from the east. We all (myself and 18 hyenas) paused and looked in this direction and then… they took off! At breakneck speed, 17 of the 18 hyenas present loped to the east as I frantically attempted to follow. We had travelled for over 2km when I spotted it – 5 female lions feeding on a wildebeest. There were already several Happy Zebra hyenas here, nervously pacing as they awaited reinforcement. What happened next cannot be adequately described in words, so I’ve included a video instead-

It takes 4 hyenas to overpower 1 female lion, so with the arrival of these 17 hyenas (and I), the group was victorious and took the wildebeest. I sat in silence. Awed at the cooperation and bravery of my dear Happy Zebra hyenas. When it comes to hyenas – teamwork makes the dream work.

Bonus: The one hyena who stayed behind at carcass #1 was SKEP. She may not have the team spirit, but she sure is smart. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Baby boom

One of the best parts of this experience is being able to get to know the personalities of the individual hyenas in our study populations and watching them interact with the world around them. It gets even better with cubs. Being able to meet a week old cub, be the first person it’s ever seen, and watch it learn about its surroundings and its spot in greater hyena society is truly a blessing. To the joy of every Talek RA, our Talek West and Pond clans have recently had a baby boom, and we have so many new bundles of joy to get to know.


Little Mizz is the newest addition to our Talek West clan, with Knot as their adoring mother. Being less than a month old we don’t see much of Mizz except when Knot decides to gingerly lift her out of the communal den for brief bouts of social time. All the cubs at the communal den seem almost too eager to meet their new den-mate, and all of us in Talek have to say that we share that excitement and then some.


Pilosa is an older cub in our Talek West clan, with Gofa as their mother. However, we’ve only known Pilosa for a little over a month. Pilosa is proving to be a bold and spunky little hyena, always seemingly eager to investigate our cruisers and explore a little further from then den than their other den-mates.

Scat and Guano

Scat and Guano are the newest black beans to grace our Pond clan, with Tasty Twist as their ever vigilant mother. Nearly 3.5 weeks old, Scat and Guano don’t come out of the den often (nor does Tasty Twist really let them), but when they do, their wobbly little legs don’t take them far before their older den-mates Ygritte and Margaery Tyrell excitedly greet their newest clan mates.

Ygritte and Margaery Tyrell

Currently the cool kids of the Pond Clan den, Ygritte and Maergaery Tyrell are just over 2 months old and are seemingly enjoying the newfound freedom that their mother Bonnet has given them. They spent their mornings tearing around the den holes, finding scraps to chew on, grass stalks to paste on, and older clan mates to play with – some of which do so reluctantly. They try very hard to play with their new den-mates Scat and Guano but are often aggressed upon by Tasty Twist in her efforts to protect her babies from their rambunctious antics. Until Tasty Twist lets them interact with Scat and Guano, Ygritte and Margaery seem to be perfectly content exploring and chewing on all the wonders the land around the Pond Clan den has to offer them.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science