Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Michigan State University VIRTUAL Science Festival!

Here at the hyena lab, we look forward to Michigan State University's Science Festival every year. We get to play around with skulls, talk about hyenas, and share our enthusiasm for research with the public. This year things looked a little different, as MSU had its first-ever virtual SciFest! At first we weren’t quite sure how we would recreate the feeling of an in-person booth through our computer screens, but graduate student Olivia Spagnuolo stepped up to make sure this year’s SciFest felt just as engaging from home.

If you missed us at MSU SciFest, catch Olivia’s talk here on her Youtube channel! Be sure to check out our spot-matching game, too, which Olivia adapted virtually for the Festival. Test your skills identifying individual hyenas (just like our researchers do in the field!).



Wednesday, May 19, 2021


Hi all, 
One of the best selling points of the Mara is its sheer amount of biodiversity: with 60+ mammal species, 470+ bird species, and 30+ amphibian/reptile species (numbers from Mara Triangle), the Mara surely has something for everyone. I was lucky enough to participate in the Global Big Day last weekend: Stratton and his friend, Pete, invited me to tag along with them as they attempted to find as many different birds as possible in the Triangle. Unlike me, Stratton and Pete are some serious birders, so we managed to see/hear 196 species in a single day. My one and only contribution to this list? The secretary bird… hey, better than nothing! Below is just a small selection of birds I’ve seen during my time in the Mara – a big thank you to Brian, Lila, Matthew, and Stratton for helping me ID them all.
Secretary Bird - easy to spot, even easier to ID :)
White-faced Whistling Duck
Grey Crowned Crane
Egyptian Goose
Juvenile Dark-chanting Goshawk
Black-chested Snake-Eagle
Rosy-breasted Longclaw
Spur-winged Lapwing
Rufous-naped Lark
White-browed Robin-chat
European Roller
Black Coucal
Speckled Mousebird
Pied Kingfisher
Sooty Chat
Striped Kingfisher
Southern Ground-hornbill
Hybrid Blacksmith/Spur-winged lapwing
African Marsh Harrier
Martial Eagle
Lilac-breasted Roller
Black-bellied Bustard
Yellow-billed Stork
White-bellied Canary
Rufous-chested Swallow
Hooded Vultures
African Grey Hornbills
Yellow-throated Longclaw
Grey-headed Kingfisher
Black-shouldered Kite
Malachite Kingfisher
Red-collared Widowbird
Red-billed Firefinch
Black-headed Weaver
Sacred Ibis
Grey-backed Fiscal
African White-backed Vulture (front) and Ruppell's Griffon Vulture (back)
Pin-tailed Whydah
Greater Painted Snipe
Great Spotted Cuckoo
Rufous-bellied Heron
Black-lored Babbler
Spotted Thick-knee
Tawny Eagle
Superb Starling
Juvenile African Fish-Eagle

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

South cubs!

Hi all, 

Remember this blog post? Well, after 2.5 months of extreme den hunting, I’ve finally earned back the title of Superstar RA! Since coming back to the Mara, I slowly, but surely, narrowed down the potential area where the South’s current communal den could be. From somewhere between a track we call the Abyss and the southern border of their territory; to somewhere between the Abyss and a track that we rarely use that veers off the main road right after a big waterhole; to somewhere between the Abyss and the previously-mentioned track, but only on the right side of the main road… It has been a slow, sometimes frustrating, process. BUT… it worked! 

Two weeks ago, I saw a lot of hyena tracks on the main road right in front of the waterhole, including little paw prints. Very suspicious! I immediately asked Brian for permission to put up a trail camera. Emily, a fellow researcher in the Mara, was kind enough to let me borrow one of her cameras and soon I had adorable footage of some of the current South cubs and young subadults (check out our project’s Facebook and Twitter pages for some of these videos!). Last week, I found JLP with her little cub, MCKY, at a den south of her natal den. Benson and I suspect that she may have used this den as a resting place for MCKY during her move to the communal den. Although JLP unfortunately did not lead me to the den that night, it further confirmed my suspicions that the current communal den was close to the waterhole. 

Fast forward to 5pm on Monday night. A young hyena researcher (aka me) sets out in her mighty Cruiser and zooms over to the waterhole (at a whopping 30km/h). I go up the first culvert across from the waterhole and slowly drive off-road to check out nearby mounds… for roughly 20m before I reach the edge of a rock field. No thanks! I immediately turn around and head back to the main road. Up the second culvert I go. Bad idea! Another rock field, but this time I only make it 5m away from the road. Of course, it is possible to carefully navigate through these rock fields, but I decide against the risk of damaging the car for a potentially useless off-roading session. Back to the main road. It’s still a little early to try to scan for adult hyenas (I usually find that dens are more active around 6pm), so I decide to turn around at the track right after the waterhole and cruise around the Northern part of the territory for a while instead. Until a well-used game path catches my eye while I turn around. “Might as well follow it to waste some time!” I know, my den hunting technique is very scientific! Until I reach the edge of yet another rock field. Ugh… I lean out of my window to scan the ground behind the car for rocks before I back up, when my heart stops. It can’t be! But it is!! A little hyena cub is standing at the edge of a mound roughly 20m from where I was. FINALLY! And I managed to get to the den without having to cross a single rock field. 

Please meet the current residents of Superstar Den (modestly named after Lila and I):
CAPE (Capellini) - HONR's cub. I've met him twice already at two different dens: once with DETH's tiny cub, KPRI (Khepri), and once with JLP's tiny cub, MCKY (Mickey Smith). I assume that HONR was using natal dens from other mothers instead of the communal den for a while.
ISSA (Issidae) - SNUG's cub. I originally nicknamed this one Dark because of its dark legs, but SNUG stopped by last night to nurse it. 
Gyro? - I saw this cub hanging out with KORS (Kokoretsi) at the small den I found when I first arrived in February. I suspect that this is KORS' littermate, GYRO, but it will remain Gyro? until I can confirm nursing.
Lizzie - this cub has a similar spot pattern on its right side as LIZ, one of the North cubs. We always try to avoid names and abbreviations that are similar to another hyena (otherwise you end up with TARA, TORA, and TERO at the communal den one night, like I did last year), but since this is an unofficial name and the two cubs are in different clans, Lizzie will do for now.
Male - another unconfirmed cub for now. This is probably my most creative cub name ever. Creativity aside, these cub names allow me to record behavioral data and keep track of the cubs until I can confirm nursing and give them their official names.
Mickey - I think that this is MCKY, JLP's cub, based on its age. However, DETH's cub is only 4 days younger, so I'll also have to wait until I see it nursing to confirm its true identity.
Movie - short for movie star. I immediately recognized this cub from some of the videos I've gotten on my camera trap! I was going to nickname it Star at first, but then I quickly realized that we already have STAR (Stardust) in the clan. Crisis averted.... 

Bonus pictures from my first night at Superstar Den:

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