Thursday, June 27, 2019

North Clan Excitement

It all started a couple of weeks ago while we were driving towards our North Clan* den. We first noticed more tour cars than usual stopping near the den before noticing the entire herd of elephants harassing the den. The elephants would run up, screaming and charging the den over and over. For nearly half an hour we watched this go on. Needless to say we didn't end up going to the den that night. We're already pretty cautious around elephants, but watching them harass the cubs was a whole new feeling. We were both intrigued and anxious at the same time. The hyenas didn't look like they shared our feelings however, they would run at the elephants in retaliation, not ever a threat to the elephants but standing their ground. I've never seen anything like it.
Elephants harassing the North Clan den

But the excitement didn't stop there!

This morning I woke up to the sound of what must have been close to 20 hyenas vocalizing. There were whoops, lows, and giggles. It was quite a ruckus. So I went to investigate. I could see hyenas charging at 4 female lions on a carcass and within seven minutes they had not only chased the lions off but nearly demolished the entire carcass. I even got to see one of our mom's provisioning for her cubs! She took off from the carcass with an entire leg and guarded her cubs from other hyenas as the cubs dug into the leg. It's astonishing how quickly the hyenas were able to not only chase off the lions but also demolish and entire carcass. And all before breakfast! It's always exciting here at Fisi Camp.

 One of the North Clan mom's bringing a leg back to her cubs.
 One of our hyenas carrying a whole ribcage!              
*North Clan is one of our three study clans here in the Mara Triangle.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Jambo from Kenya!

Hi all!

My name is Jana and I’m the newest research assistant at Serena camp. Abby (Talek’s new RA) and I both arrived in Kenya at the end of May and spent a couple of crazy days in Nairobi to stock up on camp supplies before splitting ways in the Mara. Although moving to a remote research camp in the Mara for a year seemed a little overwhelming at times, I was super excited to return to the home of the Big 5, get to know our hyenas, and be reunited with Erin, Serena’s current senior RA. (We actually became friends while learning about wildlife conservation and ecology in South Africa during college, so it only seems fitting that our first post-college reunion happened back in an African savannah).

For those of you who don’t know me, I graduated from Duke University in 2018. I’m primarily interested in human-wildlife conflict and the combination of technology and community involvement to address these conflicts. After graduation, I went to Brazil for a short field stint to set up camera traps in the Atlantic Rainforest, which will eventually help us track the effectiveness of local habitat restoration efforts in terms of wildlife presence/abundance. I also interned at the Nature Conservancy back in North Carolina, where I analyzed the possibility of planting pollinator-friendly vegetation on solar farms across the state to increase viable habitat for bees and other pollinators.

For the past two weeks, Erin and Lila (my co-RA for the majority of my time out here) have been working overtime to train me and get me up to speed with all things Fisi (which simply means hyena in Swahili). During my first night observing our hyenas, Erin told me to sit back, relax, and maybe try to differentiate some of the spot patterns of the various hyenas we saw. Needless to say, they all looked pretty similar to me. Since then, however, I’ve been able to successfully identify our cubs in North clan and Happy Zebra clan, and I’m slowly starting to learn the spot patterns for moms and subadults that like to frequent the dens. Honestly, it is so cool to be able to drive up to a den and recognize who all is there – I can’t wait to learn more about their behaviors and personalities this year!

Can you spot the difference? LOVE (in front) and BBOY are siblings from our North Clan.
Unfortunately, we’ve been getting quite a bit of rain in camp since I’ve arrived, which means that we can’t observe the hyenas as much as we’d like to. However, some of our North clan cubs have decided to take matters into their own hands – since we can’t come visit them, AANG and TARA (siblings from North clan) came to camp instead last week! I’d like to think that they mainly came because they missed us, but their attempt at stealing one of Erin’s buckets to play with begs to differ.

Overall, the past two weeks have been incredible, and I can’t wait to see what all this year has to offer. Tune in next month for another update. Oh, and don’t forget – hippos are in fact the most dangerous mammal in the Mara!

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Tale of an Aging Matriarch

Waffles, the North Clan matriarch
If you’ve kept up with the blog for a while, you’ll no doubt know of Waffles the North Clan matriarch. Some time back, Waffles infamously rose in the ranks with the help of her female friends and went from the bottom of the hierarchy to the top. Since then, she has reigned peacefully, and we know her as one of the kindest and most forgiving matriarchs.

While I can’t claim to be as kind or as forgiving as Waffles, I do feel that our stories in the Mara run parallel. Just like Waffles, I came to Serena at the bottom of the hierarchy. As the newest RA, I quickly had to keep up with the pace of work –  learning how to ID hyenas, transcribe, and manage camp. I’m sure that Waffles experienced a similarly steep learning curve as she discovered her low rank in the clan, and how to hunt and defend herself against lions. Luckily, Waffles and I both had the help of some strong, female friends. While Waffles’ friends helped her to battle other hyenas for dominance, my fellow RAs patiently trained me and I slowly rose in rank from newbie to fully competent hyena researcher. Just like Waffles’ co-conspirators, my coRAs Kate and Erin rose with me and we became an unstoppable force of hyena research.

Erin, Kate, and I conquering the Mara, one obs sesh at a time
In recent months, a lot has changed in Serena – my year in the Mara is over, and, perhaps more shockingly, Waffles has lost the matriarchy. Again, it seems that Waffles’ and I have parallel journeys. 

Waffles’ adult granddaughter, Soup, is now the highest ranker in North clan. We always believed that when Waffles lost the matriarchy it would be with a quick but violent clash of fights and bloodshed, but the rank shift actually happened very quietly over the course of several months. We noticed a few scratches on both parties, and some unusual interactions in which Soup almost seemed dominant, but not quite. Waffles wasn’t ready to give up just yet. After a few months, Soup was winning all of their (infrequent and low level) aggressive interactions, and it was clear that Waffles had relinquished the throne.

In the same way, I believed that my time in the Mara would end with fireworks and fantastic sightings of events and animals I’d never seen before. But it didn’t. My goodbye to the Mara lasted for months and came in quiet moments that I didn’t realize were happening until my time was almost over. North clan moved dens to a spot right near camp, so I could hear the cubs whooping every night. I even spotted Waffles’ newest cubs, Illovo and Grenadine, in camp more than once. We had a few spectacular rainstorms that reminded me of how powerful and even scary the Mara can be sometimes. The sunsets and sunrises became, somehow, even more breathtaking than usual. Each quiet morning at the den, sitting with my favorite hyenas and sipping coffee as I watched the sun rise, felt more poignant.
One last spectacular Mara sunset
Don’t worry – Waffles doesn’t seem at all upset about losing her spot as matriarch. In fact, she seems to have accepted the change gracefully and is enjoying her retirement. Up next for me is graduate school! I begin my PhD in Biological Anthropology with Professor James Higham at New York University this fall. We have a new group of young and eager hyena researchers on their way to camp right now and, although I’ll miss the hyenas and the Mara’s spectacular views, I’m confident that they can manage without me. I can only hope I’ll handle all of the coming changes as gracefully as Waffles stepped down from the matriarchy.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

I’m home

Jambo friends of the hyena project! I am Abby the new research assistant here at the Talek Camp of the Mara Hyena Project. I arrived exactly a week ago and let me say one thing... I’m finally home. 

I recently just graduated from Michigan State University studying both zoology and fisheries and wildlife. I started working for the hyena project as an undergraduate research assistant the spring of 2015. I’ve been working with the lab for about 4.5-5ish years now and it was truly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made throughout my college career. 

I am yet another student that was able to study abroad to Kenya studying animal behavior up close and personal. It was that trip that sparked my passion for research within the East African landscape. I was able to see hyenas, understand some of the behavior I’ve been reading up on and I left my heart here in the Mara for good. I am so thrilled to be back here gathering data hands on for the lab that has shaped me into the scientist I am today.

I’ve worked on a range of projects throughout the last five years. I was a carnivore technician for the Michigan Predator Prey Project helping to understand bear densities in the Upper Peninsula using bear hair snare techniques during the summer of 2018. I’ve helped with setting camera traps for bobcats within the lower peninsula of Michigan as well as tag and ID photos. I’ve also done other projects such as dealing with camera trapping data for feral swine in the Applied Forest and Wildlife Ecology lab at MSU and I’ve dabbled in DNA work on lake sturgeon and vegetable entomology work on campus. I’m now working on my own project in the hyena lab identifying hyena mortality causes in adults! Science has been my passion since I was a small girl and it’s privilege to make it my career.

Through it all I have continued my passion for the spotted hyena and my absolute love for this amazing species. Animal behavior has always been an interest of mine. Understanding how animals work, why they do what they do, and how their behaviors have evolved is incredibly important for work on conservation and management of species all around the world. 

Within the first week I’ve been here, the Mara has shown me some rain and the start of the great migration. There are thousands and thousands of wildebeest roaming the plains. I’ve experienced elephants chewing, breathing and swallowing right next to my tent at night and I’ve seen hyenas interacting with each other in various context. I’ve noticed the personalities of each hyena I’ve witnessed so far. I’ve been watching them and observing the behaviors I’ve read for so many years. Each individual is unique and I’m so excited to get to know them all. 

I am currently learning how to ID the hyenas, how the camp set up works and trying to set up a routine for myself. I cannot wait to be able to put names to the magnificent spot patterns and see what else the Mara has in store for me within the next year.

I’ll be here observing everything from the baboons in camp, the tracks in the mud, the skulls left behind and everything I can get from our hyena friends. I’m so excited to continue with the project and to learn more about the animals I’ve fallen in love within the last five years.

Until next time...

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science