Thursday, October 24, 2019

Get It! Get It!

After coming back from two weeks of vacation, I was itching to get back to the Serena hyenas, but they've been moving dens so often I was a little afraid Jana and I wouldn't really get to see a lot of them. But, my first time transcribing in South after my break, the hyenas brought the action! After leaving the den, Jana and I went to explore the territory only to come and find SNUG*, one of our moms, hunting a baby topi! And even better, the hunt was successful!

With SNUG's cubs SASS* and MPRS* in tow, we watched enraptured as SNUG chased and isolated a baby topi. For a split second we thought the topi might get away as an adult topi lunged at SNUG, causing her to back off. But one lunge wasn't enough to stop SNUG from providing for her cubs. As you can see in the video below, after arriving at the scene SNUG had brought the baby topi down in less than a minute! If you do turn the sound on, please be prepared for Jana and I excitedly cheering on SNUG.😁
SNUG hunting the baby topi, with ROUG* following behind
Once the topi was down for the count, SNUG and her cubs completely monopolized the carcass. ROUG (another South mom) spent the entire time sitting back from the carcass. SAMI*, a sub-adult never got closer than 10 meters from the carcass, even after her mom PALA* showed up to the scene. HATH* another sub-adault, also showed up to the carcass, but no one even got near the topi as SNUG and her cubs ate the entire thing. At 0706 SNUG took down the topi, and her, MPRS, and SASS never left the carcass until 40 minutes later when the entire carcass was demolished and all that was left was a few bone scraps for ROUG and a couple black-backed jackals to nibble on.
SNUG, MPRS, and SASS monopolizing the carcass
Neither Jana nor myself had previously witnessed a successful hunt or a complete carcass from start to finish. We have seen a few test chases, but most of those are brief and the hyenas give up fairly quickly. We have also seen carcasses before, but especially in South clan's territory, by the time we show up to the actual carcass it is mostly gone and not very busy. So this was even more exciting! Although none of the other hyenas present tried to infringe on SNUG and her cubs feeding, there were still interactions whenever someone got close, and SNUG even chased off the two black-backed jackals when they tried to sneak into the carcass. Black-backed jackals are surprisingly bold.

So there you have it! After coming back from two weeks away from the beloved Serena hyenas, they rewarded Jana and myself with possibly one of the coolest sightings so far.

*SNUG (Silver Nugget), SASS (Assassin Bug), MPRS (Empress Cicada), ROUG (Moulin Rouge) SAMI (Sam I Am), PALA (Palazzo), HATH (Hathor)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

MVPs of the Month!

Here in Serena Camp, we love all of the hyenas equally. Whether it’s a little cub who is gradually learning its place in the dominance hierarchy, or a full-grown male who is scared out of his mind while slowly approaching a female, every hyena we observe contributes important data to this project. Nonetheless, there a couple of hyenas that have gone above and beyond this month!

Happy Zebra Clan: Lizzo aka LZZO!
At only ~8 weeks old, LZZO is one of the newest additions to the Happy Zebra clan!

Last week, we’ve had not one, but two, film crews out here with our hyenas. We’re always happy to accommodate these film crews because, let’s face it, our hyenas don’t necessarily have the best reputation out there. The hyenas, on the other hand, don’t always play along. Film crews usually approach us with their client’s shot list (which is exactly what it sounds like: a list of all of the things that the client wants to have video footage of). We usually refer to it as a wish list: these shots range from very feasible (grass blowing in the wind), to pretty manageable (two hyenas aggressing onto a third one), to “yeah, okay… good luck with that one!” (a leopard approaching the communal den underneath the full moon).

As most of these film crews have rather limited time frames to get all of these shots, I often encourage the hyenas to participate. While the film crew and I are driving towards the communal den, I will silently urge them to have a fresh carcass waiting for us, and maybe they could also be fighting over said carcass with two lions? And perhaps the neighboring hyena clan could also show up to this carcass? Would that be too much to ask for? The answer? Yes, absolutely. 

The reality? We show up to the communal den, three moms are sacked out, nursing their cubs. Two other cubs may be playing with each other. Personally, I actually appreciate these slower den sessions, as I can enjoy the little things that I may not notice when I’m busy transcribing all of the aggressions/appeasements/greets happening during a busy session. One of my favorite behaviors that I’ve witnessed so far went a little something like this: a young cub, standing next to the den hole, lifts one of its hind legs to scratch an itch near its ear, loses its balance, and falls straight into the den hole. Too cute! 

Unfortunately, watching all of our hyena cubs sleeping against each other does not make for very good television, so I continue to pray for a fresh carcass. Enter LZZO! While everyone else has been sacked out during most of the filming sessions, LZZO has been very eager to please the audience. LZZO has been incredibly busy trying to play with all of the other cubs at the den (which usually ignore it as they continue snoozing). LZZO even aggressed onto one of the adult males who stopped by the communal den one night. Yes, that’s right, with the dominance hierarchy in place, a little cub like LZZO can easily aggress onto full-grown hyenas, and win. Hollywood, watch out: LZZO is truly a shining star.

South Clan: Jojo McDodd aka JOJO!
Originally known as "confusing cub," JOJO nursed from three (!) different mothers when we first met all of the new South cubs, leaving us thoroughly confused as to who its actual mother is.
As you know by now, all of our South cubs are technically MVPs at the moment. Because we didn’t know the location of the communal den for South clan for quite some time, we are currently in the process of habituating these cubs to us, our car, and our data collection process. When we first found them back in July, all of the cubs startled whenever we turned on the car, accidentally knocked our water bottles against the dashboard, or coughed too loudly. Since then, however, their curiosity has won: the cubs will walk right up to our car and investigate it as soon as we drive up to their den. 

Now that they’re comfortable with the car, it’s officially time to introduce them to something much, much scarier: the saliva stick. Saliva sticks are basically plastic tubes with a bit of rope attached at the end that we can use to safely collect saliva samples from the cubs.*** These samples are crucial back in the lab as they contain DNA! Getting these samples, however, can be tougher than expected – hyenas hate things that are above them, so holding these saliva sticks out of the car can be quite scary for them. Nonetheless, this month’s true South MVP, JOJO, has been a very eager participant. While the other cubs carefully investigated the saliva stick, quickly backing away as soon as their noses accidentally touched the stick, JOJO walked straight up and started chewing on the rope! Truly a hero we don’t deserve.

North Clan: Aang aka AANG!
Part of North's premier sibling power duo, AANG, along with her sister TARA (Katara), is officially old enough to no longer hang out at the communal den. Nonetheless, both of them somehow magically appear whenever there is food available at the den. 
I like to think that being confident is a good thing. Unfortunately, every once in a while, I’m objectively, unequivocally, 100% dead wrong. Earlier this month, the Northies treated me to a carcass while on solo obs. A lot of hyenas usually hang around fresh carcasses, so these moments are always a great opportunity to see lots of cool behaviors. Even better, I saw some of our cubs that are slowly becoming independent of the communal den as I was driving closer to this carcass – very cool! The only problem? The carcass was on the other side of a flooded track. “No problem, this is easy! I can totally get there!”, I thought to myself while confidently shifting our Cruiser into 4-wheel drive. WRONG!

Halfway across the track, my speed slowly, but surely, reached 0kmh. If you’re not very experienced with mud driving, that’s the one thing you don’t want to happen while driving through mud (okay, maybe not the only thing, but it’s definitely up there on the list). Needless to say, I did not make it to the carcass. In fact, I did not make it anywhere for the next two hours while I waited for help to arrive. Luckily, I was not stranded by myself! AANG, one of the older cubs in North clan, was wandering the territory by herself when she spotted me in the distance. Rather than continuing on with her morning walk, she actually turned and loped towards the car – very cute! She spent a good 20 minutes investigating the car and keeping me company before resuming her morning routine. Truly an adorable MVP.

***We use saliva sticks for scientific purposes only. Hyenas are wild animals, and it is important to remember that even these cute little cubs are predators with very sharp teeth. We do not condone any behaviors that put us or the hyenas at risk, and will always hide the saliva stick from tourists to prevent them from attempting similar things with the hyenas. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Baby animals of the Maasai Mara

I’ve always been incredibly passionate about animals. When I was three years old, a baby squirrel imprinted on me. It followed me around all day, and I realized my love for wildlife from that age on. Baby animals are special though. From wolf pups all the way to baby frogs, nothing can top the cuteness of babies and their importance to pass on genetic information. Here in the Mara, we see baby animals almost every day. Here are some pictures of my recent sightings and facts about the species:
This was an incredible shot, a mother leopard with her cub. The mother will carry her cubs to new dens every 2-3 days to get away from predators and disturbance.
The migration has allowed for us to see a lot of action including cute calves! Here is two mothers with their babies. Moms can be pregnant up to 8.5 months and will only give birth to one calf. Wildebeest can live up to 20 years! 
Of course I had to put a picture of one of our baby hyenas! This is SALU. When hyena cubs are born, the dominant cub will be the one to nurse in preferred position. This is when the cub has its belly up against the mom's belly. The other cub will then nurse by sticking out away from the mom. The cubs are born with their eyes open and sharp teeth already poking through their gums. We love baby hyenas! 

A lion cub sneaking a peak out of the bushes. All cubs are born with tiny spots that will disappear as they age. Adult females will also allonurse (nurse the cubs of other females) to allow for survival of all cubs that are present.

My ultimate favorite is the giraffe calf. They are absolutely adorable. Mom who leave their babies to go forage will leave their kids with another mother to "daycare" for their offspring. This allows for protection.


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

If You Want to See a Cheetah Hunt...

As manager of Dr. Kay Holekamp’s laboratory in Michigan, the Mara is not normally where you find me. Our research assistants (or “RAs”) are the ones in the field and the usual contributors on the blog. Logging hundreds of hours with our hyenas, they collect data that later finds its way to my desk in Michigan. Having never been an RA, it’s been a priority for me to see how ours live and work day-to-day by visiting the Maasai Mara myself – and I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to do just that!

“The field” (a catch-all term for anywhere biologists gather their data) doesn't have to be across the world. Depending on the project, a field site might even be the bird feeder in a scientist’s backyard. At the Mara Hyena Project, we’re lucky enough to call the sprawling, scenic grasslands of the Maasai Mara our study site – a place easy to imagine as packed with nonstop action. After all, TV depicts the Mara as a place of constant, thrilling hunts, shot from every angle and in great lighting.

While everyone here has to eat, actually witnessing a hunt isn’t easy as television might make it seem. It’s tough to be a predator, and some of the most popular – cats, like lions and leopards – miss their catch far more often than they succeed. To see a hunt in action, even an unsuccessful one, you have to be in the right place at exactly the right time.

But it’s not all serendipity. There’s a price that every observer, from film crew to researcher, has to pay: Watching gorgeous animals, who could wow you with any number of exciting behaviors, do absolutely nothing but sleep. A lot.

By now you know that we don't study cheetahs, but they do share the Mara with our spotted hyenas. And who passes up the chance to see a cheetah?

The scene is this: We’re on a morning drive, watching a few hyenas at the den. Sacked out in the grass, moms are suckling their cubs. One of our RAs, Jana, is quizzing me on hyena IDs. She takes photos, passes them to me, and I practice recognizing individuals by their spots. It’s shaping up to be a pleasant but routine morning.

We drive on and come across a group of tourist trucks, clustered around something tucked in the grass. It’s a cheetah. There’s no space to squeeze in for a good look, and then an “alien” male – a hyena who isn’t part of our study clans – wanders into view. It’s back to work and we take off after him, following until he’s gone beyond the boundaries of our study groups.

By the time we get back, the cheetah is alone and asleep. Her audience has moved on, searching for a more exciting way to spend their vacation time. We break for a few minutes and hope she’ll do something.

It doesn't look promising. 

We whisper hopeful instructions, encouraging her to notice the nearby antelope or call for a pair of (imaginary) cubs. She gets up and wanders along the roadside, pausing on a mound of dirt. It’s the perfect place to survey the landscape for prey. Is that what she’s doing?

Nope. After this photo she lays back down.

I’m someone who could watch a cheetah sleep all day. When it comes to wildlife viewing, patience is part of the deal – if we wait, who knows what might happen? But we have other work to do. There are no hyenas here now, and we're stalling. A cheetah is still a cat, and she could spend hours napping, relaxing, or just deciding which direction to walk in.

Just a few more minutes, we decide.

Then, there’s the rapid drum of footsteps. I look toward Jana’s window. Outside it, everything is happening at once.


The cheetah swings around the back of the car, kicking up dust across the dirt road. She and her target come into full view. 

An African hare!
I swivel the lens and keep shooting. A sprinting cheetah is so fast, you will miss it if you blink.

It all takes just a few seconds. The cheetah gives up the chase, and the hare disappears into the grass. What might have been a brief moment with a sleeping cheetah turned out to be action-packed after all – especially for the hare.

Authored by Sabrina S. Salome
Photos © Sabrina S. Salome

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Camera trapping in Talek camp, episode 3.

Hello everyone, I'm sure you've all been wondering what new visitors we had in Talek camp this time. Here is a selection of our best photos from the last weeks. Enjoy!

Baboons are always around and keep on wondering what this weird little camera is.

Dik-diks are also a very common animal in our camp. They love sleeping by our tents and posing for the photos.

Many animals are still intrigued by the camera trap, even big ones!

Even bigger ones!

Animals also really enjoy showing their bottom to the camera, so here's a little compilation of the most beautiful ones... starting with a hippo.

Eland, they also love to step on our rain gauges and break them...



... and elephant!

We have a lot of cute and lovely encounters, like this very pretty female bushbuck.

This baby baboon is enjoying the ride on mama's back.

Banded mongooses are fun, until they start digging under your tent when you're trying to nap...

We have a lot of giraffes coming too, unfortunately their heads never fit in the photo...

A young zebra.

Baby elephant following its mom!

Some of the encounters are a little more scary, like having big elephants traveling in camp during the day.

Sometimes they are even caught making a mess and breaking trees!

Some hyena friends are also paying us a visit.

This hippo came out of the river at 7am...

...and came back home 3 hours later!

Buffalos are probably the animal that we like having the least, so dangerous...

And we also had a leopard visiting us, very exciting!

Hopefully, our night guards are always here doing a good job keeping these animals away.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science