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. 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science