Thursday, April 19, 2018

Flood flood, go away

    As I mentioned before, it’s rainy season in the Mara! Unfortunately this also means that it’s flooding season. We at Talek Fisi Camp live right next to the Talek river, and if we get a large amount of rain we have to be prepared to evacuate camp. What does this entail? So glad you asked!

    We have had to prep for a possible flood evacuation twice since I’ve been here, so I’m pretty familiar with the process now. The first thing we do is pack up the lab tent, putting all our sensitive equipment into dry bags. Dry bags seal up the contents and protect them from any water damage. The bags could actually be completed submerged without any water getting in, but of course you won’t catch us tossing them into the river to test it! Things that go into dry bags include computers, hard drives, GPSs, our centrifuge, our hyena ID books, and few other important electronics and documents. Everything else we put up on tables to minimize the chance that they’ll get wet. The dry bags go into the cars in the event that we need to drive out of camp to seek higher ground. After everything in the lab tent has been taken care of, we’ll often rush to pack a bag for ourselves in case our tents get in the path of the flood. As you might expect, we take all of our electronics and any special things we want to save, but generally it’s no big deal if some of our clothes get wet.
The river normally
The river during a flood watch
    While we pack up the lab tent, the camp staff is securing the kitchen tent, bringing non-waterproof things to the higher ground of the lab tent and packing the car with perishables. After everything is packed and ready to go, we sit and wait to see if the river will push us out of camp. Thankfully both times I’ve been involved in flood prep, the river has receded and we haven’t had to leave camp. In the event we do need to fully evacuate, we would simply drive the cars out of camp and up a hill to higher ground. At that point there would be nothing to do but sit tight until the river calms down and goes back to its normal level. Flooding is new experience for me, but the fact that we always have a plan in the event of an emergency makes it easy to deal with. I do wish it would stop raining though, I miss seeing the hyenas!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Pond Clan Missing!

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program with this urgent news bulletin: Pond clan has gone missing!

It’s been nearly a month now since Pond clan has gone underground, and authorities are still unable to track down any leads to their new den of residence or where the adults and subadults have been living. Ever since December, sightings of the clan had become less and less frequent until by late February they were almost exclusively found just at the communal den.

Sadly, this tenuous connection was lost when the clan up and vanished without a trace from the den in early March. The police investigation found no sign of forced entry at the den, and all local lion prides were verified to have been sleeping at the time. In an exclusive interview, the neighboring warthog family states that they had heard nothing but the usual giggling and whooping.

Theories abound as to why and where the clan has disappeared, but our experts believe that shifting territorial boundaries and the explosion of tall grass caused it.

The shifting of boundaries started in November the neighboring Fig Tree clan pushed nearly a kilometer into Pond territory. This loss possibly precipitating the hostile take over that Pond clan engaged in against KCM clan, taking nearly a square kilometer of KCM territory. And these are just the territory shifts that we knew of before the long grass grew.

Pond clan territory on January 9th
Pond clan territory April 7th
Before February, the grass in pond likely measured about 10cm high, however after heavy rains in late January the grass rocketed up to nearly a meter tall. The grass is now so thick it could hide the entire clan together without a trace. The tall grass has also caused the ungulates to leave the area, “Tall grass isn’t very palatable for us and many other ungulates,” says Ms. Thompson Gazelle, and ex-resident of Pond territory, “not to mention dangerous, with predators possibly lurking everywhere.”

In these desperate times we ask you, the public, in helping us in the search, if anyone has information please call your local hyena research camp at the toll free number of 1(800)-698-POND.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


I am Maggie, one of the new grad students in the field. I am in my third year of graduate school and have come to the field to collect some of the data I need. I arrived in Kenya in early March with Connie and Allie, and unfortunately, we seem to have brought the rains with us! It has been a rainy month, which has kept us in camp. This has given me time to ease my way back into camp life and (of course!) be stressed about my research. 

I was a Serena RA (research assistant) a few years ago, so much of camp life and the research is quite familiar. My ABSOLUTE favorite part about being back is seeing the hyenas I knew when I was here last time. Many of the cubs are now grown up with their own cubs!!!! 

Here are a few of my youngsters from last time that I have seen again!!! I can't wait to get out and see more of them!
Born (short for Borneo) was a recently graduated cub when I left. Now he is huge and is working on dispersing!

Snug (short for Silver Nugget) was a little black cub when I left. Now look at her!

Onekama was a young immigrant male with gorgeous spots. Look at those spots! 
Now look at him! Those spots are fading...

Seeing my old friends has been wonderful! I can't wait to see more of them in the coming weeks!!!!!!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Hello, everyone! My name is Connie Rojas and I am one of the graduate students in the Holekamp lab! It has been a little over two weeks since I arrived in Kenya and I am feeling a lot of emotions. Fortunate to be here, in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, observing hyenas, and all of the other cool wildlife! Nervous about starting my field project since time seems to evaporate and things never go as planned. Excited to keep receiving my field training! I am getting better at driving our stick-shift land cruisers in the Mara, identifying hyenas, and knowing my way (I have no sense of direction). I am sad that my family is so far away and that they will not get to visit and experience all of what I am experiencing. Time here is precious, and I will try to get the most out of it!

A little bit about me. I was born in Los Angeles, CA, grew up in rural, Southern Mexico, and returned to LA when I was 9 years old. I resided in LA for all of middle school and high school, and later attended Wellesley College in MA, where I received my B.A. in Biological Sciences and Psychology. I am a mixture of a cellular biologist and an ecologist, as most of my courses in undergrad were in molecular biology, but in my summers, I travelled internationally to conduct field work. After graduating, I spent close to a year following rhesus macaques up and down cliffs in Cayo Santiago, PR.  I found their behavior and social interactions fascinating, and decided that for graduate school, I also wanted to study a complex, social species like these Old World monkeys. And here I am, a 3rd year PhD Student in Dr. Kay Holekamp’s behavioral ecology lab! Like my training, my research has both a molecular lab work and a field work component, and now, even a computational biology/bioinformatics component! Yay! I study host-microbe interactions, and the ways hyenas and their symbiotic microbes are affecting each other. I believe microbes are performing critical functions for hyenas; I just need to characterize them.

I am here in the Mara for 4 more months for my field season and have 3 exciting projects I am pursuing. One investigates how microbial communities change across different stages of meat decomposition, in the savannah! This is such a fun job for someone who has an irrational fear of all things worm-like, but thankfully, I am slowly overcoming this fear. Another project involves the collection of fecal samples from many of the animals here in Mara, not just hyenas, to explore the forces that structure gut microbial communities in the wild. Is it diet, is it their host’s evolutionary history, or is it something else? The last project is my main field project, which evaluates the type of information hyenas are obtaining from the scent gland secretions of other hyenas. The goal is to present adult female hyenas with the secretions of two strangers (i.e. an immigrant male & adult female), and document how long they spend sniffing each specimen. If hyenas spend a differential amount of time sniffing the samples, this indicates that scent gland secretions are indeed encoding different information. I moving to Serena camp and starting this project next month; wish me luck!

When I am not going on observations (so fun!!), collecting feces, or “working” on my dissertation research/data analysis, I am reading (Dee, I borrowed your ‘Walking with the Great Apes’ book but promise to leave it here for Kay), obsessively posting pictures on my Instagram, and trying to help to the RAs with whatever they need =) I am having a great time, and looking forward to building more memories!

Until next time!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science