Saturday, October 8, 2022

Welcome to Mara Hyena Project's South Clan!

The Mara Hyena Project was established by Dr. Kay Holekamp in 1988 and has been studying the South Clan since 2008. We have two research camps in the Maasai Mara – one based in the Main Reserve, near Talek Town, and one based in the Triangle, near Serena Lodge. We are broadly interested in the ecology, behavior, and evolution of spotted hyenas. Right now, we are working on a large-scale research project to understand how communication drives coordination and decision-making in spotted hyena societies. To do so, we are collaring all hyenas 18 months or older in a single clan – the South Clan. These collars will record the GPS locations, activity levels, and vocalizations for every hyena in the clan for over one month. 

SNUG running away with a baby thomson's gazelle she stole from a lower ranker.

Spotted hyenas live in complex fission-fusion groups with stable dominance hierarchies. The fission-fusion dynamics of hyena society allow individuals to avoid competition at carcasses without sacrificing the benefits of group defense against neighboring hyenas and other competitors. We want to see how their vocalizations function to recruit clan-mates for group hunts and defense against lions and neighboring hyena clans.

Most collars will have unique color codes on the right side of the collar for easy identification of each individual. If you are in the Triangle and spot one of our collared hyenas, please leave us a comment below. You can also connect with us on Facebook (Mara Hyena Project), Instagram (@marahyenaproject), and Twitter (@MaraHyenas). This blog post will be updated regularly as we collar more individuals – we will include the name, color code, and some fun facts about each individual so you can get to know our South Clan 😊

A closer look at the color codes - these are read from top to bottom and there are four possible colors (blue, green, red, and white). This code is red, green, blue and belongs to MPRS.

Although these hyena names may seem random to you, we do have a system! Each female hyena gets a theme (lineage) after which her offspring are all named. Adult males that immigrate into a clan are named after cities. Lastly, these names are abbreviated into 3-4 letter codes that we use in our data collection. For example, Waffles, a mom in our North Clan, is abbreviated as WAFL and all of her cubs are named after syrups. If you think you’ve cracked the code for some of our South Clan lineages, leave a comment!

Update from December 2022: We officially collard our 25th and final hyena, GYRO, at the beginning of the month. The research team is taking the rest of the year off to spend the holidays with their friends and families, restock on field supplies, and watch a World Cup game or two in Nairobi. We will be back in the field in time for January 1st, when our collars start recording all hyenas around the clock and the real fun begins!

Meet The Hyenas

Silver Nugget – SNUG

SNUG is the matriarch of South Clan. With the help of her sisters, she rose to the top of the dominance hierarchy when the old matriarch died in 2018. She successfully raised her daughters ISSA and MPRS to adulthood and currently has two cubs at the communal den.

Issidae – ISSA

ISSA is the 2-year-old daughter of the matriarch, SNUG. We suspect that she is currently pregnant for the first time and will hopefully give birth in November or December. Though female hyenas are sexually mature at 24 months, most don’t have their first litter until they are 3+ years old. However, high-ranking hyenas like ISSA are generally on the “fast track” to adulthood – they grow faster, wean earlier, and have their first litter sooner. 
Update from December: ISSA still has not given birth, so our prediction may have been wrong. Nonetheless, we are checking her GPS points frequently to see if she is on a natal den.

Empress Cicada – MPRS

MPRS is the 4-year-old daughter of the matriarch, SNUG, and the older sister of ISSA. She was “second-in-command” to SNUG but is slowly being pushed down the dominance hierarchy as SNUG has more offspring. Hyenas follow what we call a “youngest ascendancy” rule – new cubs inherit the dominance rank immediately below that of their mother, making them higher ranking than their older siblings. MPRS currently has two cubs at the communal den. 
Update from December: MPRS gave birth to a new litter of cubs at the end of November and GPS data indicates that she spends most of her time at her natal den - this den is hidden inside a thicket, so we have not seen the new cubs yet.

Stardust – STAR
STAR is a 10-year-old female who, strangely, has never given birth to any cubs even though she went through puberty at around 2 years of age. We’re not sure why STAR is infertile, but hopefully the blood samples we collected will shed some light on her situation. She is the older sister of the matriarch, SNUG. STAR and SNUG spend a lot of time together, and I suspect that their close alliance allowed SNUG to win the matriarchy over ROUG, their younger sister who was higher-ranking than either of them.

Palazzo – PALA
PALA is a 12-year-old female who managed to raise both SAMI and JOJO successfully to adulthood. She is the older sister of SNUG and STAR, but she is currently experiencing a decline in rank. We’re not quite sure what happened, but PALA was badly beaten up by her younger sisters and their offspring in both June and October of this year. Her two current cubs still spend a lot of time with their clan-mates, though PALA herself seems to avoid them at the moment. 
Update from December: PALA is recovering nicely from her injuries and is starting to spend more time in the vicinity of her clan-mates.

Jojo McDodd – JOJO

JOJO is the 3-year-old daughter of PALA. JOJO was the subordinate cub in her litter but was able to flourish when lions sadly killed her dominant sibling. Hyenas usually give birth to 1-2 cubs at a time. Immediately after birth, the two cubs fight over who becomes dominant. The dominant cub generally grows faster and fares better than the submissive cub, especially if the mother is low-ranking. JOJO is currently at a natal den, raising her first litter of cubs. 

Update from December: JOJO unfortunately lost her first litter of cubs, though this is pretty common for first-time moms. Generally, hyenas are pregnant again within a month or two after losing a litter.

Sam I Am – SAMI

SAMI is the 5-year-old daughter of PALA and the older sister of JOJO. She is currently raising her second litter at the den, a single cub named TOD. However, she likes to keep her distance from the main action. As a mid-ranker, this behavior seems to be more typical: one of the lab’s former PhD students found that mid-ranking hyenas actually have smaller social networks (friends/alliances) than low- and high-ranking hyenas.

Bellagio – BLG
At 14 years old, BLG is the oldest member of South Clan! Though she is the older sister of the matriarch, the “youngest ascendancy” rule has pushed her down the dominance hierarchy into a mid- to low-ranking position. She is currently raising her 8th litter of cubs, a single cub named WINX. Nonetheless, her linage remains relatively small as she has only raised her daughter, BSCT, and her son, PHRH, to adulthood successfully.

Seabiscuit – BSCT

BSCT is a 9-year-old female and currently has one cub that is becoming independent of the den. After a brief period at the natal den, spotted hyenas bring their cubs to a communal den. Each communal den functions as a social “hot spot” for the clan and allow the cubs to meet the other clan members. Once the cubs are 8-12 months old, they start to explore the territory and venture farther away from the den until they no longer reside there at all. We call this process “den graduation.” 
Update from December: BSCT's cub went missing at the end of October. She gave birth to a new litter at the end of November, so she was already pregnant while her cub was still alive. Higher ranking hyenas can usually sustain a pregnancy while also nursing the previous litter, though mid rankers like BSCT may have a harder time doing both. 

Gyro – GYRO
GYRO is a 2.5-year-old female subadult and belongs to BSCT. Like RACH, she grew up during the pandemic when our monitoring efforts were drastically reduced. Nonetheless, we regularly see her wandering around the territory alone, or interacting with others over a tasty wildebeest carcass. As a mid-ranker, she likely won’t give birth to her first litter for another year or so, but we expect to see her more often at the communal den once her mother, BSCT, brings her latest litter from her current natal den to the communal den.

Lamborghini – LMBO
LMBO is a 6-year-old female that has not been able to raise any cubs to adulthood successfully. She is the granddaughter of former matriarch CLOV, but lost her high rank when SNUG and company took over. As a lower-ranking hyena, LMBO spends more of her time at the edge and outside of the clan’s territory. In fact, the GPS data we’ve received so far indicates that lower rankers tend to hang out in the northern part of the territory, whereas higher rankers prefer the southern part. 

Rachel Carson – RACH

RACH is a subadult male who grew up during the pandemic. His mother has been missing since last year, so his only remaining kin is his cousin, DETH. RACH is almost 3 years old; he will likely leave South Clan soon to find a new clan. Right before dispersal, subadult males tend to distance themselves from the other natal animals – we generally see them hanging out with immigrant males, other subadults who may be dispersing soon, or by themselves along the edge of the territory.

Death Star – DETH

DETH is a 9-year-old female and the granddaughter of the former matriarch, JAVA. She was pushed from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom third when SNUG and her sisters took over after JAVA’s death. Generally, a matriarch’s youngest adult daughters will fight over the matriarchy when she dies, but both Happy Zebra and South Clan experienced drastic hierarchy shifts after the deaths of their most recent matriarchs. Since losing her high rank, DETH has not been able to raise any of her litters to adulthood successfully.

Honor Harrington – HONR

HONR is an 8-year-old female that is relatively low-ranking. She had her first litter when she was 5 years old (recall that the high-ranking ISSA may already be pregnant at 2). HONR is currently at a natal den, though we have not seen her new cubs yet. Spotted hyenas give birth in a secluded den (natal den), where they keep their cubs for 2-4 weeks before bringing them to the communal den. 

Update from December: HONR moved her cubs to the communal den for a couple of weeks, before ultimately moving them to her sister's natal den. 

Capellini – CAPE

CAPE is a 2-year-old male subadult and a master of disguise. In the Mara Triangle, we rarely see den-graduated cubs and subadults during our regular observation sessions. Many earlier blog posts have alluded to this, but the tall grass, wallows, and rocks all provide perfect cover for the hyenas to hide from us (or, more likely, lions). And if you thought that having VHF tracking on these collars would make things easier, think again! The other night, I drove by CAPE three times before I finally found him sleeping in the shade of a massive boulder. 

Jean-Luc Picard – JLP

JLP is a 12-year-old adult female in the lowest-ranking matriline of the clan, and the mother of KNIN and MCKY. She is currently at her natal den, nursing ACE, the newest addition to South Clan. Like most low-ranking hyenas, JLP is one of our more elusive individuals and spends most of her time away from the more gregarious high rankers. In fact, we nearly gave up on darting her until the GPS points from HONR, JLP’s sister, led us right to her natal den. Phew! 

Mickey Smith – MCKY

At 23 months old, MCKY is the youngest hyena to wear one of our collars. She is currently at the tail-end of the most dangerous life stage for hyenas: the time between den graduation and adulthood. During this time, young hyenas often venture out on their own, or with their littermate if they have one, and encounter all types of troubles… namely lions, but also the risk of starvation as their slow skull development puts them at a huge disadvantage while feeding. However, the odds of survival increase dramatically when a hyena turns 2 years old, so we have our fingers crossed for MCKY!


KNIN is our lowest-ranking female in the clan. Life’s not easy at the bottom of the hierarchy, but she seems to manage just fine! She is currently raising her second litter of cubs at the communal den and usually has a full belly when we see her. Maybe she’s a talented hunter? Time (and our collar data) will tell! We did find one surprise while collaring her: she is missing one of the toe pads on her hind right paw. We didn’t see any scars, so she was likely born this way.

KNIN's foot with the missing "toe."

Texas Slim – SLIM

SLIM is a 9-year-old immigrant male who stems from North Clan. He joined South Clan in December 2015, making him the highest-ranking adult male in South. Unlike natal animals, immigrant males follow a “queueing” system for their dominance rank: when a male joins a new clan, he usually becomes the lowest ranking hyena in the entire clan. To rise in rank, he must wait for the immigrant males who have been around for longer than him to die or move on by dispersing again to a different clan.

Strummer – STRM

STRM migrated from North Clan to South Clan in 2016, making him one of our long-term males in South. Research shows that spotted hyena males undergo an “endurance rivalry”, meaning that they generally must stay in their new clan for at least 2 years before siring their first cub. This is not always an easy feat as the lowest-ranking members of the clan, but STRM seems to have made close alliances with STAR, one of our females, and SLIM, another long-term immigrant.

Bakersfield – BAKR

BAKR is one of the immigrant males in South Clan. We are not sure which clan is his natal clan (where he was born), but we’re sure glad he chose South as his new home! Although female spotted hyenas stay in their natal clan for their entire lives, males usually disperse when they are sexually mature to find mates. This is an important aspect of hyena ecology that prevents inbreeding. 

Silver Spring – SLVR

SLVR is an adult male who immigrated into South Clan at the end of 2019. Immediately after collaring SLVR, he decided to go on a “vacation” to Tanzania. Our GPS data indicate that KNIN, a lower-ranking adult female, also went to Tanzania for a few days, and several other hyenas have gone on excursions outside of South territory in the past couple of weeks. These hyenas are likely trying to find food as the migration has officially moved back to Tanzania, leaving South territory with relatively few prey animals. 

Momo – MOMO

MOMO is a 7-year-old immigrant male originally from our North Clan. MOMO’s mother is a high ranker in North Clan, so MOMO enjoyed the “sweet life” before emigrating. However, once males immigrate into a new clan, they behave submissively to all hyenas they encounter, which makes them automatically lower ranking than all natal clan animals. MOMO seems to have adjusted well to the drastic decline in rank: we found very few scratch/bite marks on his body, and research shows that males who were higher-ranking in their natal clan often have an easier time when immigrating into a new clan.

Lexington – LEXI 

LEXI immigrated into South Clan at the beginning of 2020, which seemed to be a hectic time for the clan. During the span of 2 weeks, we saw 9 new aliens in the territory, 8 of which officially joined the clan. Unfortunately, all researchers had to leave the field around this time because the pandemic, so we’re still not sure what caused this immigrant boom.

Goliath Bird-Eating Spider – GOLI
GOLI is a 6-year-old immigrant male who was born in the Happy Zebra Clan. He joined South Clan in January 2020 and is currently the lowest-ranking hyena in the entire clan. GOLI has been in the clan long enough (2+ years) to sire his first cub, based on some recent work from our lab on endurance rivalry. In fact, we saw him courting MPRS just a few days ago. Unfortunately, MPRS was too busy nursing her two current cubs to pay him any attention, but we wish him all the best during these trying times! Female hyenas have a fully erectile clitoris making coercive sex impossible, and females are higher ranking than all immigrant males, so they can choose which males to mate with, and which males to fight off.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science