Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Favorite Sightings so far!


Hi all!

As you probably know, this job requires a lot of driving around the Mara. While Lila and I are primarily looking for suspicious-looking rocks, branches, and topis that could potentially be hyenas, we also encounter some incredible sightings along the way. Here are a couple of my favorite moments from the past 2.5 months: 
It’s mid-July, and rumors had started spreading: the great migration has finally come to the Mara Triangle! Indeed, thousands of wildebeest were hanging out right across the river from us, waiting for a prime opportunity to cross to our side. Eager to see our first major crossing, Lila and I decided to go on an official stake-out. Armed with unfinished transcriptions, binoculars, and snacks, we decided to find a spot close to BBC crossing (one of the many crossing points along the river). As we typed up our transcriptions, the herd of wildebeest slowly crept towards the edge of the river. Two hours into our stake-out, Lila and I decided to drive a little closer to BBC crossing to see how far away the wildebeest were (our previous spot had given us a great view of the river, but bushes obstructed the edge of the cliff). Suddenly, we saw not one, but two cheetahs who appeared to have been hanging out with us for quite a while without either of us noticing them! And, it looked like the wildebeest were right where we wanted them: the only place left for them to go was through the river. Lila and I were stoked to say the least. Until the hyena came! We love our hyenas with all of our hearts, but man, this was not the time to make an appearance. Within five minutes, a single hyena effectively managed to scare all of the wildebeest away from the edge. Disappointed, Lila and I decided to give up – dinner time was quickly approaching. As we drove back to camp, however, we realized that there was a major crossing finishing up a little down the river that we had completely missed. Big L.

Day two in the Mara. Erin and Lila are showing me around our three territories and pointing out various landmarks that we use to orient ourselves. Eager to see my first hyena/lion/cheetah/leopard/eland/etc, my eyes were constantly scanning our surroundings. At one point, Erin casually points to a random tree in the distance: “This is Scrawny Sausage Tree, which marks the end of one of our prey transects.” If you’re wondering how sausage trees got their name, a quick Google image search should enlighten you. Inspecting the fruit that was hanging down from this tree, I was intrigued by one particular fruit – it was darker and fuzzier than all of the other fruit. A quick scan of the tree led to another fascinating fact about this fruit: it was connected to a leopard and was not a fruit at all. Another quick scan of the tree led to an even more fascinating fact: there was a freshly-killed impala in the tree as well. It looked like we had just missed an exciting hunt! Nonetheless, the leopard was more than willing to pose with its trophy for us. Very cool. On an unrelated note, we found a natal den that appeared to belong to SAW (Saw), one of our Happy Zebra mothers, around five minutes later. Although we were unable to see any cubs at this den, SAW has recently brought her cub, ELDR (El Dorado), to our communal den!

What’s cuter than a little lion cub? Three little lion cubs. What’s cuter than three little lion cubs? A mother lion carrying around one of the little lion cubs in her mouth. Unfortunately, I was not able to get any stellar photos of that, so you will have to settle with three little lion cubs and their mother walking off into the distance. Still adorable though!

Our conversation at this sighting went something like this:

Jana: “Wait… are they fighting?”***
Lila: “OMG THEY TOTALLY ARE!”
*2 seconds later*
Jana: “Wait… are they mating?”
Lila: “OMG THEY TOTALLY ARE!”

***In case you’re curious, giraffes fight by smashing their necks into each other while standing next to each other.

Another case of mistaken identity! This seems to be a recurring theme throughout my blog posts, but I swear it’s really hard to spot predators that are meant to blend in with tall grass!!! As Erin, Lila, and I were driving to our communal den in Happy Zebra, we noticed an oddly-shaped tree branch/log on the side of the road. Since we drive through these territories regularly, we immediately notice when a rock has moved, a tree branch has fallen, or anything else is out of the ordinary, so we were thoroughly confused by this new branch/log. None of us realized that we were looking at a leopard until we were 5m away from it! To be fair, this was unlike any of our other leopard sightings so far. Usually, the leopard will walk away or hide in the tall grass as soon as a car pulls up, so it was weird to see a leopard sitting quietly right next to the road. As we drove by, we could’ve easily reached out our hands and petted it (don’t worry Mom, I didn’t!).   
You already knew that I *had* to include a picture of hyenas in this blog post! Meet BSCT (Seabiscuit) and her cubs, BLT (B.L.T.) and CHEZ (Grilled Cheese), from South clan! Lila and I are very obsessed with our new cubs in South (see our very excited blog post from July), so it’s always nice to see them out and about while we’re on obs. Now, please look at BLT’s face (the one in the middle) and try to convince me that hyenas actually belong in the Ugly Five.

Honorable Mentions:

Seen on solo obs the other day while I was alone in camp – just 4 lionesses and I! Usually predators in the Mara are accompanied with lots of tour cars, so it’s always nice to have solo encounters with them. 

Too cute not to share 😊

Lila and I managed to see a crossing after all! No wildebeest were harmed (good for them, but Lila and I were hoping for some crocodile action).

We even randomly encountered one while taking our Maruti out for a quick spin. I kid you not, we stopped to let this herd cross the road, and two minutes later they were on the other side of the river (the first few crossings we saw took ages!).

Serval!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Mating Ritual

August 1st, 2019... a brisk, misty morning. We were on the search for our Confusing Den hyenas who have decided to make a move from Villa Den all the way west. They are a part of the Talek West Clan. The terrain out this way is bumpy and sometimes we only see one or two hyenas near this new den. It was almost 7am, cloudy and still a bit dark when all of a sudden we came across a carcass with a female lion feeding! She was huge... and looking in the eyes of a large lioness tearing apart a wildebeest is a bit frightening. That doesn't end though, we look over about 50 meters and see three hyenas eating a different carcass! Our location was not too far from our Confusing Den 3 (yes there are three because the hyenas are on the move and we are very confused on what is happening) so our initial thought was, "Okay these have to be some of the adults we know." It was strange though, no aggressions were happening over this carcass and they were being very quiet. Were they Talek West hyenas?

We drive quickly over to the hyenas and realize "Oh no, they are muddy... very muddy." We did our usual routine: take pictures, look through the books, see if anyone else can ID these animals, and then try to ID our pictures back at camp. It turns out one of the three were one of our immigrant males In Talek West that resides at confusing den, LWIG. What about the other two!? Nope, they were another clan... so we watch and observe for a little while because LWIG was still one of the study animals. All of a sudden one of the hyenas is starting to mate with the other one! We watch, we record, and we are just amazed that we are able to see this behavior in person.

Mating behavior in hyenas is a rarity to witness. Although hyenas can mate year round, it’s difficult to see in the wild, and even so females are only in estrous for three days. When males are trying to mate they must overcome the obstacle of getting their erect phallus into a forward facing pseudophallus. Males are squatting as low as they can and thrusting until they can achieve their goal. The goal is to survive and reproduce. When spotted hyenas are mating both of them are incredibly vulnerable to lion attacks. Now remember, we are at a carcass session and a lioness is on ANOTHER CARCASS about 50 meters away! As the male and female decide to take matters elsewhere, the female starts to follow the male. When the male wants to mate he will bow, paw the ground, lick his legs and he is allowed to get away with peskier behavior than if the female was not in estrous. 

We follow these two. Both of them stop and the male tries to mount. He bites her neck and the female has no response! Usually, if the female wasn't in the mating mood, she would lunge, bite back or chase the male away. She is letting him get away with too much, all to produce more offspring.

In about 110 days the female will have her cubs. If it is her first litter the odds of her cubs surviving are very low. She has to give birth to 1 or 2 cubs out of a plastic straw. It can be dangerous and I imagine, incredibly painful. 

Although these two weren't a part of our Talek West Clan, we hope that both were successful and her babies will be healthy and thriving.

Mating behavior
Picture credit: J. Bro-Jorgensen
J. Bro-Jorgensen

References: 

Szykman, M., Horn, R. V., Engh, A., Boydston, E., & Holekamp, K. (2007). Courtship and mating in free-living spotted hyenas. Behaviour,144(7), 815-846

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science