Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sloth Bear and my field experiment

Hello everyone!

Life in the mara is good! There has been less rain here in Serena Camp, so we have been able to go on evening obs consistently. I’ve spent a lot of time at the dens and other popular hyena hang out spots conducting my scent discrimination trials. In case you have forgotten (I don’t blame ya), I am conducting trials to investigate the type of information being encoded in hyena paste (scent gland secretions). I present hyenas with the scent/paste of 2 alien hyenas they have never met before and record the amount of time they spend sniffing, biting, and rubbing on the stimulus. The paste sample usually comes from an alien adult female and an alien adult immigrant male.

The scent trials are highly entertaining; for example, here is sloth bear loving these sticks:

Making a tough choice:

Sloth bear is my most active participant. He never fails to sniff and interact with the sticks at every trial, and he spends the most time at the sticks than any other hyena! His mom spends the entire time following him around (to nurse I presume), but all sloth bear wants to do is be around those sticks! When his mom gets tired of this, she goes towards my sticks, gives them a brief sniff, and then pulls them from the ground; effectively terminating my trial 😅

Sometimes the cubs are not interested in the sticks or are bored by them:

and instead engage in vigorous play, which is very fun to watch:

In my last post, I mentioned how I was having difficulty getting adult participation. There were 2 problems: 1) I was not seeing many adults at the dens, and 2) those that were at the dens, were hesitant to approach the sticks. What I have been doing now, at least with our south clan, is to drive down tracks that hyenas frequent. This has been successful, and I have been getting adults and subadults to sniff the sticks that way. The other good thing about this method is that once one hyena arrives, others follow shortly.

My other project has been to collect fecal samples from antelope and other masai mara mammalian fauna (like elephants, mongoose, warthogs), which usually involves hanging out by a herd, waiting to see if an individual defecates, going towards that area (or what I thought was the area because my distance perception is flawed), and then spend a few minutes searching for the pellets amidst the tall grass! They blend in very well.

Sometimes we find them, sometimes we don’t! 

We’ll until next time! 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Leopard Sighting!!

Hello everyone!
I'm Kate Steinfield, the newest addition to the hyena project. I graduated from MSU back in 2016 with a degree in Zoology and a concentration in animal behavior and neurobiology. I arrived in the Mara at the end of March so I've spent almost two months out here... just enough time to fine-tune my photography skills. And let me tell you, I've had lots of practice! I've seen just about every major tourist attraction; lions, elephants, cheetahs, wildebeest, topi, gazelles, hippos, and of course hyenas. All encounters have been WELL documented with my camera. But boy is it hard to find a leopard! A few days ago, my time to shine finally arrived. A leopard. And not just a leopard, but a leopard RIGHT NEXT TO OUR VEHICLE! This little guy defied the shy stereotype and came straight up to investigate the strange animals sitting in a box on wheels (making for a very successful photo shoot). I'm sure he was thrilled to have his 15 minutes of fame. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Big Five!

Out here in the Mara, there is a group of animals called the “Big Five”. This term was originally coined to describe the five animals that were the most difficult to hunt on foot but since the advent of conservation awareness the definition has changed. Now it is used as way to see how many of the five you can spot while on safari, and I’m proud to say that in just two months I managed to see them all! Here’s a virtual Big Five viewing:

African Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Probably the easiest of the Big Five to check off the list, these ornery savannah cows are all over our side of the Mara. This buffalo is doing what buffalo do best, looking mean and judgmental.

African lion (Panthera leo)

Since the grass has recently grown long due to the rainy season, lots of antelope have been in the area and that also means that there are lots of lions around. This big male was seen relaxing in the morning sun and looking majestic.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana)
Elephants are one of best sights to see here and in my opinion they never get old. Watching a herd slowly make their way across the plains is so peaceful.

African leopard (Panthera pardus)

Leopards are something you definitely don’t see every day. I’ve been lucky enough to have two sightings since I arrived, but I am extremely lucky for having gotten those opportunities. If you do get the chance to spot one though, it is stunning.

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

The last on my Big Five list, rhinos are basically never seen in our territories. One day I had the supreme luck of seeing not one but three black rhinos all together! Oddly enough one of them didn’t have any ears, but I’m not about to look a gift rhino in the mouth!

If you ever come to visit the Maasai Mara, keep a look out for the Big Five! They are by no means all the Mara has to offer in terms of wildlife spotting, but it is fun to check off the list one by one! With ten months left here, who knows what else I’ll see?

Monday, May 14, 2018

Books Books Books!

Few research supplies in camp are used as much as our photo ID books! We use them daily to confirm IDs of hyenas we see. As they are so important, it is critical that we keep them updated and as accurate as possible. It’s a messy and tedious task, but absolutely necessary.

Photos are important: we want to make sure that each hyena has a clear right and left side so we can easily see their spots. This is especially important when they are young and growing.

We organize these photos into categories: Unknown is for small cubs if we haven’t yet learned who their mom is. Cubs is devoted to hyenas that are still den dependent and their parentage known. When the little babes graduate (no longer den dependant) we move them to the Subs (sub adult) category. Male hyenas usually disperse, so they almost never get moved to the adult male section. Female hyenas, since they remain in their natal clans, are moved to adults when they are 3 years, or when they have their first cub.

If we have not seen a hyena for 6 months or more, they are deemed “missing”. They are then given a date last seen, and are moved to our missing book. We keep photos of missing hyenas in case they come back home. DEGE is our most recent Missing hyena. He is a male and likely dispersed, but sometimes males will come home for visits, and its important for us to know who they are so we have accurate demographic data.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Baby hyenas mountian climbing

One of my favorite things to watch while observing the hyenas are tiny hyena cubs climbing on their mothers like a jungle gym. So I thought I would share their adorableness with you all.

AQUA and KENG playing with their kids.

Magenta's kids, Pikachu and Charizard, climbing over their mother when they were 5 weeks old.

From KENG's expression, this happens all the time

Caught in the act of climbing

MAA's kids, Daffodil and Tulip, being adorable.

Cuteness overload starting to max out.

It's a hard life being a hyena mom at times.

My favorite part is when they reach the other side and slip off.
Cuteness levels maxed out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Ant Alert!

Before I came to Kenya as an RA in 2014, I thought ants were cool. They live in these fascinating groups and show an amazing level of cooperation. Then I met siafu… Other names for these ants include army ants or safari ants. They live in temporary holes and may move quite frequently. While traveling, they form these long, distinct lines with the soldier ants on the outside. (Emily mentioned them in her post last week.)

Long-story short, I met my first siafu in 2014 after we had gotten stuck. I got out of the car, and in the tall grass, I unknowingly walked through a column of siafu. Within a few minutes, I was jumping around yelping. The ants had crawled up under my jeans and were biting me. The soldier ant class has a strong set of pinschers that they will use to bite and hold. Often times siafu soldier ant bites draw blood. The ants are also hard to squish, and they will usually bite your finger as you squish them. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? J

After I had gotten all the ants off me (they were in my shoes, socks, and all over my legs), everyone then proceeded to tell me siafu horror stories. Apparently, you can wake up in the middle of the night and think that you hear rain, but what you are actually hearing are many siafu falling from the ceiling of your tent. It is raining siafu! Or you might walk into the kitchen tent at some point and realize that the floor is covered in a writhing mass of siafu. You don’t want to walk through that! Suffice it to say, that siafu had quickly become the scariest animal in the Mara!

Since this first experience, I have come across siafu many times. In the last week or so, they have been all over Serena camp.

As I approached my tent on my way back from breakfast this morning, I saw the columns… They were all around my tent and under my tarp… But these ants were a different color than the siafu we usually see. They were reddish. Hmm, were these another kind of siafu or some other type of ant? Fire ants? Do they bite? I tried to google them, but there are way too many ant species for me to get an accurate answer. I ended up asking Philimon and Moses, our camp staff. They called them termite ants and said that they were harmless. I was okay with letting them be as long as the ants did not cause problems, but of course, Philimon and Moses went into full on pest control! They sprayed doom, a pesticide, all around the outside of my tent and put laundry detergent around the edge of the tarp under my tent. Now, I am stuck outside my tent while the fumes dissipate! Here are some pictures of the “termite ants” and my tent.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Paste Trials

 I have now been in the Mara for almost 2 months! Where did the time go, you ask? I am asking myself that same question. I woke up and all of a sudden, it was the end of April. Do you ever wake up and feel like your whole life has gone by?

No, actually, I am happy to say that I have started my field project; the very thing I came here to do! And boy, has it been an adventure! Who knew so many problems would arise, ha! For my field project, I am conducting scent-discrimination trials where I basically present hyenas with the scent gland secretions (paste) of 2 other hyenas they have never met. I smear the paste on the tops of two, thick wooden sticks, hammer them into the ground, and then videotape the interactions. We think that these scent gland secretions, which are most likely synthesized with the help of bacteria, encode information about the hyena; such as their sex, age, and social group. Back at camp, I review the videos and record the amounts of time hyenas spend sniffing each of the sticks. If at the end, hyenas smell one of the sticks (paste) more, then that would suggest that the sticks are not the same and are indeed encoding different information.

It has been extremely fun to conduct these trials! The cubs are highly entertaining! They get really interactive with the sticks; not only do they sniff them, but they also bite them, and rub against them. On one occasion, they completely removed the sticks from the ground and ran off with them (bye, bye, stick!). That stick became their new favorite toy (Awww!). I thought, hmm, maybe the sticks are too thin, so I bought thicker sticks that I have been really hammering into the ground. This has worked; the cubs have not been able to take them, except now, the subadults are taking them 🙃 🙃 🙃. Bless their hearts. Can’t blame them; they are curious about the actual stick and the scents of these 2 hyenas they have never met before! Addressing this issue is currently one of the things I am working on. Another issue I need to work on is getting more adult participation. They usually come late into the evening, but so far, rain has forced us to terminate the trials early. I hope that once these rains leave, I can conduct my trials more frequently and stay out longer; increasing my chances of encountering adults. I’ll have to get creative about where I position the sticks as well 🤔 🤔 🤔.

Here is a hyena cub sniffing my sticks:

Here is another getting close and personal with these sticks: 

And lastly, here are 2 cubs running off with the sticks(!!):

Overall, the field work has been fun! What else has been fun? Seeing all of the animals, getting to know the staff, RAs and grad students here, watching 30 Rock, stuffing my face with French toast (my favorite), sleeping in, getting fancy juices at the lodge, and sharing my experience with my family via the pictures I take 😊 😊 😊.

Well, that’s it for today!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science