Thursday, September 9, 2021

Goodbye Mara (for now!)

And that’s a wrap! As of last weekend, I’m back in the States for my first semester of classes as a PhD student. I officially joined the Holekamp lab earlier this summer and will hopefully return to the Mara in January for my first round of fieldwork. Until then, David, our latest Kenyan research assistant, will keep an eye on the Serena hyenas to make sure they keep their shenanigans to a minimum. As I embark on my new journey, I can’t help but to reflect on my time in the Mara this year. Although being the only researcher in Serena was challenging at times, I am eternally grateful for this experience.

Thank you to Brian and Sue Heath, for allowing me to conduct research in the Triangle, taking me on countless game drives, and hosting delicious dinners. Thank you for introducing me to the surrounding mzungu community when I was faced with the social challenges of living in a remote research camp. And most of all, thank you for not accidentally killing me on our last game drive through arguably one of the worst off-road areas I’ve encountered in the Mara. 

Thank you to Warden Alfred, Aruasa, and the other rangers for changing my flat tire in less than 5 minutes and digging me out of mud when I found the only wet patch in the entire Mara Triangle. Thanks for always stopping to chat while out on patrol, taking me out on game drives, and keeping me company at the infamous leopard bush for literally hours at a time. Lastly, I’d like to say the opposite of thank you, for the time you guys got me horribly stuck in black cotton soil for 3+ hours. 

Thank you to Benson and the entire Serena Team for keeping me alive out here. Simply put, I would not have survived in the bush for 7 months if it wasn’t for you guys. Benson, thank you for the endless supply runs, advice, and kindness. This project would not be the same without you.

Thank you to Lerijin for answering all of my 6am wake-up calls and WhatsApp messages. Thank you for rescuing me 3 times in less than 48 hours, for fixing KAS anytime a problem popped up, and for teaching me African time. 

Thank you to Fran and her kids for the picnics, lunches, and camping trip. Thank you for coming out to see the hyenas with me – may Austin and Zoe become the newest research assistants in Serena one day. 

Thank you to Simon for the hot showers at the lodge, which drastically improved my quality of life in the bush. Thank you for hosting my friends, the beautiful hippo pool breakfast, and yummy bush dinner. Thank you also for conceding that the “greedy” hyenas can actually be quite cute sometimes.

Thank you to Stratton, Perry, and all of the other visitors who stayed in Fisi Camp. Thank you for accompanying me on obs, listening to me rant about why hyenas are awesome, and teaching me about your research. Thank you for breaking up the monotony of regular camp life and expanding my social circle.

Thank you to Lila for listening to hours and hours of voice messages about literally anything and everything that happened out in the bush. I cannot wait for our reunion in the Mara next year. 

Thank you to the Mara for the beautiful sunsets, stunning landscapes, and incredible wildlife sightings:

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Meet the Wapi Dave Crew!

Over the last month, Happy Zebra went from my least favorite clan to my most favorite clan. From meeting the new cubs, to figuring out the hierarchy changes, to determining who has gone missing/immigrated while I was gone, there is always something interesting happening during an obs session in Happy Zebra. Last week, I also finally found the second Happy Zebra communal den. Happy Zebra has traditionally had two different dens at the same time: a relatively busy den with most of the high and mid rankers and a slower den with low rankers. Funnily enough, the hyenas are currently at Lugga Den and Wapi Dave Den, the same two places where they were denning at when Lila and I first started out in 2019. Although Wapi Dave Den currently only has 1 cub, it’s always fun watching the hyenas there interact. Here’s the general crew:

SILK – The Queen of Wapi Dave
Even though SILK is technically lower ranking than MUON, it seems like she is the queen of this den (SILK is the second lowest ranking mother, after SGL). With most of her offspring, from PLTO to BRUM, hanging out at the den with her, she always has a posse of potential allies around. Even RMMY and SKEP, who are also both higher ranking than SILK, have appeased to her over the past week.

PLTO – The One and Only Cub
The true star of this show: PLTO is currently the only cub at the den. Although it is beneficial for SILK to keep PLTO at Wapi Dave Den, where she can easily nurse her without interruption, PLTO is also missing out on crucial socialization right now. Cubs love to play with each other at the den and will often form important alliances/friendships with others in their cohort during their shared time at the communal den.

MERC – SILK’s Subadult Son
MERC is the dominant cub from SILK’s previous litter and loves to stop by the den to play with PLTO. Unfortunately, I have not seen his littermate, DOOM, around yet. Just like PLTO, both MERC and DOOM were raised at Wapi Dave Den.

BRUM – SILK’s Grown-up Daughter
BRUM is also SILK’s offspring, though she is sexually mature and even has a torn phallus, which indicates that she has given birth at least once. BRUM has been scent-marking and groaning a lot while at the den, which could potentially mean that she has little cubs at a natal den somewhere that she wants to bring to Wapi Dave Den soon. Fingers crossed! 

MUON – SILK’s Best Friend
Although I have not seen any cubs that could belong to MUON, she spends a lot of time at Wapi Dave Den with SILK. The last time I was there, MUON was generally within 1-2m of SILK, and even appeased to her cub, PLTO. Could SILK actually have climbed up the social ladder a bit during the pandemic?

JAZZ – The King of Wapi Dave
JAZZ is our highest-ranking immigrant male, and his long time in Happy Zebra clan has given him some special privileges, at least with the Wapi Dave Crew. Unlike other males, who generally spend most of their time 20-30m away from the main action at the den, JAZZ will simply walk up to any of the females and engage with them. He was even grooming BRUM’s leg without issues the other day!

DEGO – The Traditional Male
DEGO is one of the “newer” immigrants in Happy Zebra, though he has been around since 2019/2020. He behaves like most immigrants: keeping his distance from the others, anxiously backing away from anybody who approaches him, and generally appeasing to any and all hyenas he sees. 

Although Wapi Dave Den has fewer hyenas than Lugga Den, it generates a ton of interesting data! First, I love watching JAZZ interact with SILK and co. Whereas most males get chased away if they come too close, JAZZ can confidently walk up to anyone at Wapi Dave without having to worry about being attacked. Even OMHA, another long-term immigrant who spends a lot of time with the Lugga Den Crew, will behave very submissively and cautiously towards the females and cubs. Second, it will be interesting to see how the benefits vs. disadvantages of raising PLTO away from the main communal den will play out in the future – sure, PLTO is able to nurse without interruption at the moment, but she probably hasn’t met the majority of the clan yet, which will likely lead to a lot of stressful interactions once she den graduates. Third, could there have been a dominance switch-up among the low rankers? Like I mentioned before, several hyenas who are technically higher ranking than SILK have behaved submissively towards her. And lastly, just like with any other den, are there more cubs coming soon? MUON and BRUM are both spending a lot of time at Wapi Dave Den, and even RMMY and SKEP have stopped by to scope out the den.

Matriarchy Update
After watching the high rankers interact over the past month and a half, I *think* I finally have some concrete answers! It seems like BOOM’s daughters, SAVY, RUMG, and JLYR, have formed a close alliance to overtake the others. I can confidently say that JLYR is not the matriarch, though I’m still figuring out whether SAVY or RUMG is higher ranking between the two. Although SAVY should be higher ranking based on the old clan list, RUMG does have a strong ally in ARGO, her daughter, who spends most of her time with RUMG. For now, I have all three at the top of the clan list, with no other changes among everyone else (though I may have to move SILK up a couple of ranks soon too). 

Full names: SILK – Silkwood, PLTO – Plutonium-239, MERC – Mercury, BRUM – Candelabrum, MUON – Muon, JAZZ – Jazz, DEGO – San Diego, RMMY – Rummy, SKEP – Skeptic, OMHA – Omaha, BOOM – Boomerang, SAVY – Savvy, RUMG – Why is the Rum Gone?, JLYR – Jolly Roger, ARGO – Argo, SGL – Shangri-La


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

It's the little things

Out here, we have a lot of time to appreciate the little things in life... a hot, indoor shower after 3.5 months of cold showers, the first post-supply trip breakfast with avocado toast, eggs, sausages, AND cheese, the first mile on a paved road after off-roading through the Maasai Mara for months at a time... After over a year out here, I can guarantee you that I will never take a hot shower for granted again.
After mainly focusing on the Big Five while my visitors were here, this week has been incredible for small predator sightings:
Does a hyena cub count as a small predator? Probably not, but I wanted to include this little guy anyways. After months of waiting, we're finally seeing black cubs at the communal dens again :) ROUG, from South, has two small cubs right now (COLR and PNCL) and LANC, from Happy Zebra, has one cub (LAVA). RUMG, from Happy Zebra, has also been spending a suspicious amount of time in/near the den hole, so I have been keeping a close eye on her in case a black head or two pops up out of the den. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a little baby boom: THLS and SAVY, both from Happy Zebra, and RANG, from South, could possibly have cubs as well. Both THLS and SAVY have been spending a lot of time at the den, groaning and pasting (scent-marking) throughout the obs sessions. We generally witness this type of behavior right before moms will bring their new cubs to the communal den. RANG showed up to the South communal den for the first time this year (that I’ve observed at least) last night with very prominent nipples, a good indicator that she may also be nursing right now.

*Full names: ROUG – Moulin Rouge; COLR – Lip Color; PNCL – Brow Pencil; LANC – Lance; LAVA – Laevatein; RUMG – Why is the Rum Gone; THLS – Toothless; SAVY – Savvy; RANG - Rangsang  

My visitors and I saw this serval pouncing around the grass in Happy Zebra territory earlier this week. We immediately stopped and turned off the car to quietly watch it successfully hunt a little mouse. Very fun!
This jackal was nice enough to carry a tired thomson’s gazelle around South territory yesterday morning. 
Another beautiful serval sighting in Happy Zebra territory this week – I tried to use my hyena IDing skills to see if this is the same serval as from above, but the spot patterns are different, so I’m assuming it’s another individual. Any serval experts out there?
Jackals have been providing a great taxi service out here lately – this one was carrying a coqui francolin around Happy Zebra territory over the weekend.
Banded mongooses often come through camp to forage on insects, so I’m always a little surprised when I see them with bigger prey.
Another successful mongoose from the same group as the one above.
Bonus: Puff Adder spotted on one of the main roads in Happy Zebra this morning – these are a lot cooler to see when they’re not hanging out right next to our toilet. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Fisi Visitors :)

Hi all,

Because we are working so far away from home for up to 12 months at a time, Kay encourages us to have family visit while we are here. Not only does this help them understand what our work is like, but it’s also a very welcome taste of home for us (often quite literally as they generally bring over some of our favorite snacks!). Plus, they often bring over supplies crucial to our research that we can’t get in Kenya. While here, they get to go out on obs with us, meet all of our hyenas, and experience the challenges (and rewards!) of work in a field station. For example, although the rainy season is technically over, I managed to find the only wet spot in all of Happy Zebra territory while my mother and her partner were visiting me last week and promptly got stuck! Not quite the experience I wanted to share with them, but now they know what the behind-the-scenes of hyena research looks like. A big thank-you to the kind rangers who helped us get the car free!

A visit to Fisi Camp involves lots of quality time with our cubs.

Of course, I still wanted to deliver on the Big Five (plus more), so here’s some of the incredible sightings I got to share with my visitors last week:

We got super lucky and saw this lion mating with another lioness.

Sunrise with these two beauties.

Probably the hardest of the Big Five to see, but luckily we had help from the rangers.

Buffalo seem to be doing really well this year - all the herds have lots of little calves.

The last of the Big Five - my mother's favorite, so we spent lots of time with elephants.

Not a part of the Big Five, but just as cool!

We watched this baby being born and taking its first steps.

The perfect resting spot for these birds.

Watching over his kingdom.

Elands are some of my favorite animals out here. Unfortunately, they are pretty shy.

Bad picture, great sighting.

Thomson's Gazelle.

The first wildebeest are beginning to move in :)

These cubs are growing up way too fast.

Lilac Breasted Roller during Golden Hour.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Happy Zebra Cubs!

Hi all,

Serena has been incredibly busy this month – the migration is slowly starting up, with the first batch of zebras starting to cross into the Triangle; my new coworker finally arrived to camp last week; and I have lots of visitors coming for the rest of the summer. Nonetheless, I wanted to share some exciting news with our devoted hyena followers: after ~4 months of extreme den hunting (rock fields, swamps, wallows, mud… you name it, I drove through it…), I finally found our Happy Zebra communal den!! So without further ado, please meet the current residents of Eyrie D2 (named in honor of the Mara Raptor Project, who helped me find our cubs):

BRRY - Charlotte de Berry; Mom: JLYR (Jolly Roger)
ANNE - Anne Bonny; Mom: JLYR (Jolly Roger)
PYXI - Pyxis; Mom: TULA (Tarantula)
SOLO - Song of Solomon; Mom: ANDO (Andor)
SARA - Black Assarca; Mom: OMLY (Grace O'Malley)
QUEN - Sequence; Mom: CSBY (Cosby)
ARCH - Archean; Mom: COEL (Coelacanth)

The Fight to Rule Them All – Matriarch Update!

Now that we have the communal den, we can finally observe more interactions, allowing us to slowly figure out who the new matriarch could be. EREM is officially disqualified (LANC and EREM were my original top contenders as both of them are high rankers who sustained intense ear damage while I was gone), making my new top choice JLYR! Although she has not aggressed onto a lot of other hyenas so far, her daughter, OMLY, is very feisty at the moment. If somebody’s starting a “fight” at the den, chances are OMLY’s involved.
Potential Matriarchs: Green - top contender; Orange - potential contender; Red - no longer in the race

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