Saturday, November 3, 2012

Rained In, Game On

Hello people!  The start of the short rains out here in the Mara have given me the time to finally contribute some material to this blog.  In all honesty, I've certainly had the time to do this sooner, so lets just say that the short rains have brought on a new level of boredom that has allowed me to expand upon -what some may call- my routine out here.

The month of October consisted of a healthy amount of rain.  There were quite a few times where we couldn't go out due to the rain, but nothing like this.  I think in the last 3 days, we've gone out for a total of 45 minutes.  I never thought I would get bored of sleeping in, but it has happened.  So what have we been doing to pass the time?  Lots of reading, and I know Dave and Julia have been doing work on their own research, but I think that I speak on behalf of the group here when I say that the climax of the days events is when we put aside all personal endeavors and break out the game of games - Settlers of Catan.   Its a board game consisting of building roads and cities, trading resources, and teaming up against the person who is winning (aka Dave).  They told me it was addicting when they taught me how to play... and they were right.  Even now, as I'm sitting here writing this blog, I'm praying that Dave and Julia put aside their real people work for an hour and so that I can get my fix.

Its all made worse by the fact that I haven't even won a game yet.  Hopefully that changes soon, or the month of November is going to be overcast in more than one way.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Elephant Roadblock

Dear Elephants,
Look, I get it. You're huge. So huge in fact, that you can stop traffic and prevent cars like my own from going a certain way.

That's OK, I'm familiar with your ways. In fact when training new researchers on driving through roundabouts in Nairobi, I always say, "cars in the roundabout always have the right of way, unless they're bigger than you." Same rules must apply in the Mara too, I guess.

Point taken.
Elephants: 1
David: 0

At any rate, I'm glad to see you're back in the Mara after your exodus to avoid the migration.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

An ode to Target and Welcoming Junior

In memory of Target, Dee sent me a picture of Target dressed in MSU hyena research swag, and Kay’s jacket. Thank you, Target, for braving all the crazy hyenas who try to attack your face.


But now we have Junior, who is in much better shape.


Unfortunately, recently the hyenas have been pretty quiet, so I haven’t had many opportunities to throw Junior out into the wild. This is the nature of field work; the animals don’t always do what you want them to.

Since Junior has arrived, he has seen some action, but luckily nothing like what Target saw. This morning, I had a near heart attack though, when Artemis bolted at Junior. Flashing through my head was, “Oh my gosh, how do I rescue Junior?!? Artemis is running so fast! AAAAH!” Luckily for Junior and me, she stopped abruptly about 10m away from Junior.


Since I am about to leave for the summer, this is probably one of Junior’s last outings until I am back next year or someone else has a good idea for Junior to do.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What do we do with all this poop?

Whenever we see one of our hyenas doin’ its business, we try to collect a fecal sample. This may strike you as pretty disgusting (and indeed, it sometimes is), but poop can provide us with a wealth of information about the inner workings of hyenas. We can use a small sample to measure a variety of hormone levels and even extract DNA to determine their genetic relatedness to other individuals. Because physiological changes can be a warning sign of impending population declines, as David Green described in a recent post, we are also planning to explore what stress hormone levels in hyena poop can signal about the status of mammals in the Mara ecosystem (for more on this, and for opportunities to help through our sponsorship by Petridish, check out All of this makes us hyena researchers quite excited when we see a study subject dropping us one of these treasured morsels, can locate it in the grass, get it into a ziplock bag in the field, and then stuff it into vials that are frozen in liquid nitrogen back at camp.

But the road from watching a hyena poop to having usable data is a long one. This spring, before heading out to the Mara for my two-year field season, fellow grad student Sarah Jones and I packed up about 550 hyena fecal samples and headed to the University of Nebraska to see what our hyenas’ various bowel movements over the past six years or so could tell us. Sarah was analyzing samples for androgen levels (a class of hormones including testosterone). I analyzed samples for corticosterone – a main mammalian stress hormone.

After our precious cargo made it safely to Omaha (driving around with a back seat full of coolers of valuable poop is a bit unnerving), we learned from endocrine god Dr. Jeff French how to transform our stinky poop samples into PhD gold. Dr. French normally spends his time exploring the connections between hormones and behavior in marmoset monkeys and humans but takes a break every few years to help us process these more exotic poops transported all the way from the wilds of Africa.

Before even doing hormone assays to determine the concentrations of hormones in our samples, we first had to extract the hormone from the feces. This proved the most labor-intensive part of the whole process and amounted to about five days of thawing poop, weighing poop, heating poop, drying poop, grinding poop with a mortar and pestle, picking hairs out of poop, and…weighing it again. The goal is to get a pure sample of dried feces that, when combined in a known mass with a known volume of liquid, will give us a homogenous solution of hormones. Here are some of the steps we went through to turn hyena diarrhea into some pretty science-y looking tubes of extracted hormone…

Weighing out a precise quantity of feces

Drying out a hundred-or-so fecal samples overnight in an incubator 


DO NOT drop this tray of incubated samples! Aren’t they colorful!? Dr. French and I think they look like spices set out in a Middle Eastern market. 

In the beginning, this process was super cool to me. Five years after some hyena ate a zebra, here I was sitting in Nebraska seeing all those tiny black and white hairs in its poop and picking them out with the attention of a surgeon. But after doing this for more or less 12 hours a day, Sarah and I were starting to think our morning coffee grounds looked like poop (and wow, so perfectly mortared-and-pesteled!) and had the urge to weigh out a perfect .2 grams of that pepper before adding it our pasta. We were ready to reach the end of the extracting phase….

Voila! We do some chemistry and centrifuging magic with those dried samples and here’s that solution of hormones on the left. The rest of the stuff in our sample – all the stuff we don’t want – remains in the tube on the right.

After using some more fancy science tools that us field biologists don’t usually lay our hands on, like this multi-channel pipetter on the left, we are left with our final extracted product on the right. I swear, these little holders filled with just the precise quantity of yellowish sample, perfectly in solution, looked more beautiful than liquid gold. Now, on to the exciting part…finding out the concentration of corticosterone in each of those little tubes. This will help us determine how a hyena’s stress level is shaped by ecological, social, and physiological factors, as well as conservation management decisions.

And for this, us field folk get to feel even more like real, honest-to-god scientists by utilizing the properties of radioactive substances. We add an antibody to our extracted hormone as well as corticosterone tagged with a radioactive Iodine tracer. What this amounts to in the lab is adding various brightly-colored radioactive liquids to our precious tubes of extracted hormone in specific timed succession, giving us pretty test-tube racks like this…

Radioactive poop! 

Then, the hormone in our sample and this radioactive antigen compete for binding sights on the antibody. This is one of the highlights of the process because as the magic of “competitive binding” occurs within each of these tubes, you get to take a 2-hr break from pipetting and go grab some lunch. When you return, chemistry magic has happened… and I have never been this excited about basic chemistry principles in my life. We can then add another brightly colored liquid to our tubes to separate the radioactive-labeled hormone that has bound to the antibody from the hormone that has not. After adding this precipitant and centrifuging our tubes, we’ve successfully completed this separation.

Tubes of radioactive poop about to be centrifuged

And finally comes the most nerve-wracking step of the entire procedure…decanting. Imagine, after spending days extracting the hormones, and then many hours carefully pipetting small amounts of somewhat dangerous substances in and out of small containers, you manage to get each of these precious tubes safely in and out of the massive centrifuge. You’ve also managed to not spill anything and are trying not to think about just how much each of these little tubes actually costs if you were to sum up the price of all the different liquids you’ve added. Now comes the time when you put these tubes in a special holder, turn them upside down, and literally pour all the fancy chemicals you’ve added down the drain. For me, this was the most stressful step in the process. I always had a mental flash of all those valuable tubes crashing into the sink and having to start the whole thing over again!

Pouring it all down the drain...

...but not everything goes down the drain.  What we are left with is a small pellet in each tube that can be read in a Gamma Counter to measure the amount of radioactivity. The higher the radioactivity, the more the radioactive hormone won out in our competitive binding battle and the less corticosterone there actually is in our fecal sample. By comparing our samples with various solutions of known standard concentration, we can determine precisely the amount of stress hormone in each of our samples.

In the coming months, we will be using these new data to address several questions in addition to the hypothesis that spotted hyenas can serve as an "indicator species" for the Mara ecosystem.  For example, I will be asking whether hyenas living in areas within the Mara with different management strategies show different stress profiles. I will also be looking at the behavioral, physiological, and demographic consequences of maternal stress for mother-offspring relations and cub development.  As these questions form the heart of my PhD research, you'll hear more about them in future blog posts...

My first foray into endocrine lab work would not have been possible without the help of the French Lab. Thanks to Dr. French for opening his doors to smelly hyena poop samples and all his guidance. Also, thanks to undergrad Benjamin Hochfelder in the French lab. Can you believe Ben came in on a weekend to help us grind and weigh poop!? Finally, Sarah and I want to give a huge thank you to Drew Bernie. Drew’s title is “lab tech” but his endless help and trouble-shooting abilities during our stay in Omaha quickly earned him the nickname “Superman.” Drew turned me from a pipette-naïve hyena watcher into an assay-machine and seemed to be able to put out any fire that Sarah and I started. Thanks, Drew!

Left: undergrad-extraordinaire Ben Hochfelder
Right: Drew didn’t want a commemorative photograph taken, but this picture pretty much sums him up.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tall Grass be Gone!

Here in the Mara Triangle, the lack of grazing and extended long rains in April has made for some really tall grass.

Like REALLY tall. Upwards of six feet in some places.

Luckily, The Mara Conservancy has cut the grass on tracks in preparation for the high season and flood of tourists. Unfortunately in a small car like the Maruti, our car wanted to bring some back from the bush as a souvenir for camp!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Sentinel for African Ecosystems and an Opportunity to Help

An up and coming website called Petridish is giving us the opportunity to raise funds for research, not from big granting agencies, but from ordinary people like you. Below is a general synopsis of the project, but for more information and ways to donate go to

Monitoring an entire ecosystem is an incredibly daunting task. There are many species of sympatric herbivores and carnivores, important ecological processes taking place, and interactions between all three that maintain and sustain ecosystem functioning. If disturbed, the ecosystem (and species within it) may become threatened, endangered, and risk extinction.

Although sentinel and indicator species have been monitored to prevent damage to ecosystems and specific species, they have historically been used on a presence/absence basis.  In other words, if the indicator species (i.e. spotted owl) is present in an ecosystem, then the ecosystem is deemed to be in “good” condition, or recovering from previous disturbances.

Unfortunately, by thinking of an indicator species only from a presence/absence basis, we may be ignoring subtle cues emitted by good sentinels to help prevent damage to ecosystems and other sensitive species. By using a species that is known to emit subtle cues, we may be able to curb disturbances before it becomes too late. And this is where the spotted hyenas come in!

Previous research in our lab has shown spotted hyenas to emit early warning signals about how they themselves are negatively influenced by human encroachment on their habitat. Changes in space use behavior, often one of the first ways that organisms adjust to changing environments, pre-date demographic changes in hyenas by 3 years.  Changes in stress physiology, another signal that a population could be in trouble, pre-date demographic changes in hyenas by 5 years. What we want to understand with this new research program is if these same metrics can be used to predict population changes in more sensitive species in African ecosystems, like lions, cheetahs, and threatened herbivores.

To evaluate the hyena’s capability to act as an indicator species, we will use GPS collar technology to look at how hyenas utilize space, monitor stress physiology through non-invasive collection of feces, and then relate these measures to the spatial patterns and population trends of other carnivores and herbivores that live in our hyenas’ territories. This may sound easy, but it will require deploying new collars to many of our study animals, and months of driving around our territories to effectively monitor multiple animals on the landscape. However, the payoff will be extraordinary if we are able to use changes in our hyenas to aid in the conservation of biodiversity!

To learn more about this exciting research, and to help support and donate to its completion, please see more at is a great site that allows readers and hyena enthusiasts (like yourself!) to get involved with research taking place around the globe. Please go to the website and learn more about using spotted hyenas as a sentinel for African ecosystems, and think about donating. Every little bit helps! 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Pan ate Target!

While in Talek, I have been doing experiments to test an individual hyena’s boldness. We have this foam hyena that we call Target that I have been showing to hyenas to see how they respond.

Alfredo and Target

Most hyenas who have seen Target will notice it, try to get downwind of it to smell it, maybe head bob to it, and leave. There are a few variations to this pattern, but we think that the hyenas eventually realize that Target is not a hyena as they get closer.

A couple days ago, I saw the two most extreme responses yet.

In the morning, we showed Target to Blue, an adult female. She is relatively high ranking. Blue was very upset by Target. We had placed Target in the road she was going down, and once she saw Target, she stopped dead. Slowly, Blue got a little closer to Target. By the time she was barely 30m away from Target, she turned around, walked over 100m away, walked around Target putting our car between her and Target, then continued down the road. Blue didn’t really even bother to try to sniff out what it was; she just avoided it.

In the evening, we were lucky enough to find another test subject. It was Morpheus, a higher ranking female than Blue. Morpheus saw Target, stopped briefly to stare at it, then walked straight up to it. She was the first hyena I have seen to touch Target. If someone goes close, they’re still usually about 5m away. Morpheus was walking circles around Target, sniffing and licking it. All the sudden, she stopped abruptly and walked off, and we realized that her younger sister, Pan, was coming straight at Target with another older sister, Adonis, hanging back about 80m. For the second time ever, we watched a hyena walk straight up to Target and start sniffing and licking her. Next thing we knew, Pan had grabbed Target’s tail, dragged her a couple meters, and knocked her off her stand. Adonis started to approach from where she was hanging back with her daughter, Grape Escape, at this time, and Pan started to drag Target into the grass. This series of events all happened very quickly, and once Pan started taking Target into the grass, we stopped the session immediately to go save Target.

Unfortunately, we were a bit too late. Within the 30 seconds it took to drive to where they were, Pan had bitten a few bites out of Target’s rump, detached its head (which is meant to slide off), and bitten off about half of her nose. Poor Target. One of the weird things is that the parts that were bitten are the exact places hyenas would attack an intruder. So maybe they think Target is a hyena, or at least enough hyena-like, longer than we had thought. Or this could just be the case for these high ranking and bold sisters.

Target’s injuries, with Jenna looking shocked and worried in the background

Ian (one of the IRES students) and me with Target in the beautiful Hilux

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Be a Part of Hyena Research!

For those of you loyal followers (readers who check this here blog more than once a day), and those new to the Mara Hyena Project (those of you who have recently been hooked on our “Notes From Kenya” blog), we want to get YOU involved in the research!

To do this, we’ve created some new t-shirts that allow you to help support our research efforts while also looking shnazzy!

Take a look at these fine researchers and staff sporting the new t-shirts!

Photo of researchers, staff, and Dr. Kay Holekamp in the new threads.

The best part is that you too can look as shnazzy as them! Just email Dee White at for more information. Hope to see YOU rocking our hyena prints soon!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Meet the new girl.

Our newest research assistant is Jenna Parker, who first came to Kenya with our 2009 BEAM class. As I did many years ago, Jenna has clearly fallen in love with the Mara and our hyenas. She returned to the project during the summer of 2011 as an IRES student, where she did a project identifying lions individually by their whisker spots. And now she's here for the year, taking over for Eli Strauss when he heads home at the end of June. It is not clear whether Jenna will be contributing to this blog during the coming year, but she has her own blog on which she reports on events here in Kenya, so if you're interested in reading those posts, they can be found at
Here's Jenna babysitting an immobilized hyena en route to our "recovery bush."

Lion dummies

A lot of folks have inquired lately about what’s going on over here, perhaps because there have been so few contributions to this blog lately. In fact, we’ve been extremely busy doing loads of different things here, but this week in particular has been exciting because we’ve been doing pilot experiments looking at hyena responses to life-sized stuffed lions. The stuffed lions are on loan to us from Craig Packer’s lab; one of his graduate students working on inter-specific relationships among large carnivores, Ali Swanson, brought them up to us from Serengeti a few days ago. These lions had been used several years ago when Packer and colleagues were inquiring why lions have manes, but encounters between the fake and real lions in those experiments caused the stuffed lions to suffer some wounds. Therefore, upon Ali’s arrival at fisicamp, our first task was to repair some of the damage inflicted on the stuffed lions by their real counterparts. Although Ali and I initiated the repair work, both Josephs and the other guys who work in our camp soon took over patching various holes in the stuffed lions. Stephanie Dloniak flew down to the Mara with her sound equipment so we could call hyenas in to interact with the stuffed lions.

My goals in asking Craig & Ali if we might borrow the stuffed lions was to run some pilot experiments inquiring about the circumstances under which hyenas help one another. One of the most common forms of cooperative behavior among hyenas is the formation of coalitionary mobs to drive lions away from their kills or from  the hyenas’ own dens. With the life-size models, I hoped to vary odds ratios (numbers of hyenas relative to numbers of fake lions present) and pay-off schedules (the quantity of meat available for the hyenas to steal from the fake lions) to inquire how these variables affected the hyenas’ tendencies to call in allies and cooperate with one another. Going into this, we had no idea whether the hyenas would even behave towards the fake lions as though they were real, but they most certainly DID for a surprisingly long time!

It rained hard the night Ali and Steph arrived in camp, so the next morning we ran an initial pilot experiment with the Talek East clan, whose home range includes our camp, so we didn’t need to drive far in the mud to set it up. We made both models into females by removing the mane from one model, placed the stuffed lions on the side of a hill, and dumped a few chunks of meat in front of the models. Then Steph played loud sounds for several minutes of lions and hyenas interacting over a kill through a speaker mounted on the roof of one car (the sound tape was made in Botswana by former fisicamper Anne Engh; thanks Anne!).  We had observers and videographers in each of three vehicles positioned at 12, 9 and 3 o’clock, such that they would be able to capture events and hyena IDs from multiple angles. We performed this experiment at the edge of the Talk East home range, so the call-in tape only attracted 5 hyenas, but they appeared to be fooled by the fake lions, as they were clearly very nervous. Some of the observers were situated on car roofs or standing to film out of open roof hatches in our vehicles, and the hyenas in this clan are very shy, so they all ended up running away after several minutes rather than attempting to get the meat chunks. We failed to attract any adult females to that scene (only adult males and subadults), which might explain why none of the arriving hyenas vocalized to call in allies. But we learned valuable lessons from that little experiment nonetheless including how our vehicles needed to be positioned relative to the fake lions, and that we all needed to remain strictly inside our cars.

Yesterday morning we ran the experiment on No-Name Hill, which is in the center of the Talek West territory, not far from the communal den. This time, we kept all the vehicles fanned out at much tighter angles to one another so the hyenas had more unobstructed space in which to move around the fake lions, and all observers and videographers remained inside their cars. We also made one of the two lions into a male by replacing its mane with velcro, positioned the fake lions at the edge of a small clump of bushes, and increased the number of meat chunks placed under the chins of the fake lions. Once again, Steph played the call-in tape for a few minutes, and almost instantly hyenas started appearing in the tall grass of the surrounding plains.

The first hyena to arrive on the scene was an adult female who ran around whooping madly while also pooping in apparent fear of the fake lions. Shortly thereafter more hyenas arrived, and soon we had nearly thirty clan-members loping excitedly around the fake lions, and vocalizing. We heard alarm rumbles, and various hyenas whooped and greeted at the scene, so they were clearly “talking” to one another. Soon we had nearly 30 hyenas there. Most hyenas kept a respectful distance from the lions, but they were clearly all scenting the meat. Some hyenas would periodically start to move in closer to the models but then one would scare itself, and everyone would dash away again. You can see the hyenas’ fearful behavior in many of the great photos Steph took (a few shown here).

I found it very interesting to watch individual variation in boldness toward the models, indicated by how close the hyenas were willing to approach them.  Some approached to only a single body length away whereas others stayed 100 body lengths from the lion models. Eventually, when the models did nothing for quite a long time, some of the boldest females, including Loki, Parcheesi and Monopoly, darted in and grabbed chunks of meat from under the lions’ noses. They were then chased all over the place by higher-ranking hyenas until they eventually dropped their chunks. Even after all the meat chunks had been taken, lots of hyenas were still milling about, so we had to pull our cars forward and block the hyenas’ view while we loaded the fake lions back into our pick-up and covered them up.

Disappointingly, we did not see even a single coalition form during the entire experiment. This may be because the lions never did anything to keep the hyenas from eventually coming close enough to grab the meat. We were hoping to try another experiment this morning with the Fig Tree Clan, but there happened to be real lions prowling about at the call-in site when we arrived, so we will try that again tomorrow if the actual lions are gone. This time we hope to use hidden speakers to periodically play lion sounds from under the models to determine whether this might affect the hyenas’ tendencies to cooperate. But even if they still fail to cooperate, these lion models could clearly still be very useful in analyses of boldness and communication among the hyenas. And as everyone present will tell you, these experiments are a LOT of fun!

Thanks again to Steph Dloniak for taking all these wonderful photos!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When life gives us rain...

...We look for animal tracks in the mud and make plaster casts! 
As a reference, the lion front paw is as big as a female hand with the fingers stretched out!

So Serena Camp is faring much better than Talek Camp. Our complaint of not being able to make it to 2 of 3 hyena dens seems very trivial compared to the midnight evacuations of Talek!!! Really, we can't complain, the rain has brought more carnivores to camp than usual! We have had lions come through camp during the night and early morning, including one big male whose roar literally made me fall out of bed. A hyena casually walked by the dinner table one evening and now hangs around the shower area at night. The usual herbivores still come around occasionally. We had 13 giraffes in camp one afternoon! THAT was noisy as they noticed us and ran away! I literally scared the crap out of one when I emerged from my tent brushing my teeth one morning. We have had many elephants, one of which has taken on the duty of forester/landscaper, trimming the trees along the driveway. 

I also recently discovered a new way to add a video since the original way most likely requires high-speed internet and foiled my plans. So expect many more! This one is of one of our South clan subadult females, Ranch, whooping. She received several whoops in response and shortly after, her mother, the infamous Clovis, showed up!

And this is one of North clan's cubs, Ratchet, the Master of Multitasking- scratching his/her back while grooming his/her belly!

An unexpected addition to this post: On Monday Noémie and I performed our first necropsy on a male from Happy Zebra, Loverboy (LBOY). We suspect he was killed by lions, although I will spare you the gruesome details. He was initially discovered in a torrential downpour at night, covered in tens of thousands of carnivorous army ants, so upon returning the next morning with Doom insect killer, we learned that army ants disappear during the daylight...but maggots persist regardless. Hyenas sometimes smell like dead animals when they're alive. A dead one was much worse. That smell did not wash off easily... or at all in fact. 
As a tribute to Loverboy, we will now present his life in pictures!

....Just kidding. 

I am also incapable of leaving a cheetah photo out of a blog post. So here is a video of the female cheetah who gave birth to a new litter in the first week of April! The video was taken March 29th, just days before she gave birth!

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Flood That Wasn’t (…THANKFULLY!)

Thought you were done reading me complain about the rainy season? I’ll stop complaining after it stops raining and we can get out of camp!

Two nights ago we were all awoken by our askaris (“night watchman” in kiSwahili) just a few hours after we had called it a night.  Many of us in camp had been on edge given the somewhat consistent, dramatic rainstorms we had been having and the threat of things getting damaged by all of the water.  If you remember correctly, the last time I wrote, we were worried about the lab tent flooding from poor drainage.  We had done our best to fix this problem, and were hoping that we could move onto worrying about something else in the time being.  That’s why when our askari woke us up, we knew it was going to be something a little more troubling.  Two nights ago when our askari woke us up, it was because the river right next to camp, the “Talek”, was flooding its banks.

This type of water situation is much more dangerous and worrisome.  We have at any time 2-3 tents along the riverbank, and depending on how high the river gets from rain upstream, the lab tent (and all of our equipment and data inside) could easily be trashed.  Definitely nothing to scoff at!

After pulling ourselves together and out of our sleep induced stupors, we started evacuating the tent most likely to be destroyed: our kitchen tent.

At the time, this tent was literally packed to the zipper with fresh food from a recent Nairobi trip, and took almost an hour just to move it all to the lab tent and our dining table.

With the river continuing to rise and the kitchen tent evacuated, we moved our attention to the lab tent.  Here, the lab tent was full of months of data: blood samples, photo-ID books, extracted DNA etc.  In addition, we have (seemingly endless) essential equipment to make camp run-- all in danger if the river got much higher.  And unfortunately for us, it didn’t seem like the river was slowing down anytime soon.  So…raise things to higher ground and move all the data and expensive equipment to the cars we did! That way, if the river was still a threat, we could drive to higher ground, out of camp, and into the bush.

What? The river is still rising? I guess we better start taking down the (now empty) kitchen tent and hope for the best.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Luckily the river didn’t get much higher at this point.  A few more feet and the river would have literally been up to the lab tent—forcing us to drive things out of camp to higher ground.

In the morning, we all awoke to the wreckage and slowly started putting things back into their respective places.  It felt a bit silly putting everything back where it came from knowing that the same thing could happen again the next night…but we’ve got a camp to run out here and we need our stuff in their appropriate places!

Although it has still been raining every day, the river is back down to its “normal” level.  We’ve all been sleeping easier in camp, and are doing our best to stay busy and out of trouble by learning new games and watching movies.  We’re running out of new ones (already playing various forms of gin, rummy, bridge, hearts), so any recommendations are welcome!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rainy Season Blues

For all of you faithful bloggers out there, this is David, returning to Kenya for my long field season to conduct my graduate research (I’ll be here for ~2 years).  My dissertation focuses on ways that we can use the spotted hyena to assist in the conservation of wildlife out here in east Africa.

Although I wished my first blog entry (of this field season) would be triumphant, a sort of, “I’m back, and look at all of this data I’ve already collected in just a few weeks time,” this has not been the case.  Unfortunately, I seemed to have timed my return to Kenya with the return of the intertropical convergence zone, filling me with the blues. 

The rainy season blues.

The intertropical convergence zone creates the weather patterns of dry and wet seasons here in Kenya.  The northeast and southeast trade winds converge twice each year over Kenya, once in March-April, and then once again in November-December.  This low atmospheric pressure combined with the heating around the equator creates literally tons of precipitation.

What this means for us here in camp is a lot of rain.  And by “a lot,” I mean up to 50 millimeters in the course of a few hours.

This changes much of our day-to-day work here in fisi camp.  Driving around recording hyena behavior is often replaced with ensuring camp doesn’t flood, and in the event that it does, putting things into dry bags and elevating expensive electronics.

Here’s to hoping we get some sunny days soon to dry off and get out of camp!

Friday, April 20, 2012

April Showers Bring...Mud.

Impending doom over camp as I left Happy Zebra den

April was a different pace compared to my first few months here. We had much more rain, which meant a lot less time spent in the field collecting data. Rain also meant that the few times we tried to visit the hyena dens, the Mara made sure it was a challenge. Changing a tire at night only 100m from a hyena den as curious hyenas investigate the issue can be a little stressful. Fortunately, our second flat tire occurred during the daytime with no hyenas trying to assist, and when Noémie’s family was visiting, so it went much smoother.

My first week working alone in the Mara, I was unaware that a fuse had come loose in the fuse box of the Land Cruiser while driving in a rocky area one evening. So when I attempted to restart the car and head back to camp, I felt a surge of panic, but quickly regained my composure, knowing that all fuel and liquid levels were good and that the battery was still working. I now know that cars contain a fuse box... After waiting only 2 hours in the darkness standing on top of the vehicle, periodically waving a Maglight towards the glow of headlights on the horizon (with a visit from the South clan hyenas, including Clovis herself, lions fighting and/or killing something in the darkness and jackals and hyenas calling all around), I was graciously rescued by one of the Mara Conservancy mechanics.

My first week alone also included not only my first, but also my second time watching a bunch of hyenas on a kill! Obviously I was quite overwhelmed, especially since the second kill ended up being a different hyena clan than the ones we study, which explained my complete lack of recognition of any hyena! During the first kill, I witnessed Clovis (she seems to be a recurring them in my posts) drag an impala carcass into a mostly dry riverbed (called a lugga in Kenya, after many frustrating attempts to discover the meaning of this word) and then remove it a few minutes later. Intrigued by this behavior I did a little research. Apparently, the intelligent hyenas have discovered that if they cache their food in water, terrestrial predators cannot smell it, nor would they even think to search for it in water. Hyenas also seem to only cache food in small water bodies, not in crocodile-infested waters where they would quickly lose their meal. In March, after seeing a hyena swim across the low-level Mara River, we also discovered that not only can they swim, but they can dive and catch fish as well! These hyenas never cease to amaze us!
Clovis with an impala (dead, obviously)

My second week working alone included getting the tiny little Suzuki Maruti stuck in the mud, twice, but help was never far and both instances occurred during daylight. I am quickly learning to skirt around any area that looks even remotely squishy.

Despite not being out in the field as much, amazing animal moments still occurred! One morning, Noémie and I were overjoyed to come across a caracal! We probably spent more time following it than we should have, but then again, it was a caracal! Who knew when we would see one again? Well, 2 days later, I saw it again while driving back to camp one evening! One of my favorite moments this month, though, was when I was driving back from North clan’s den and came across a female cheetah, lying on a termite mound. I stayed there with her until after darkness when the cheetah left, because that moment was just too special for me to disturb with the noisy engine of the Land Cruiser. She now has a new litter of cubs! Hopefully they have better luck than the previous litter!

The most impressive moment happened fortunately when Noémie’s family was visiting. 4 giant male lions were marking their territory in South’s territory and we could tell these big boys had nothing to fear. This was most evident when they had all sacked out against each other in the middle of the plain in the rain but none batted an eye when we drove right up to them for photos. 1 lion is impressive, 2 is incredible, but 4 was absolutely amazing!

Lastly, if any former Fisi campers or blog followers recognize this snake and can confirm that it's not dangerous, that would be very much appreciated considering it is climbing my tent pole in the photo! It was between 1-1.5m long, green scales with black skin underneath, yellow belly, excellent tree climber (slithered straight up the trunk!), and occasionally puffed up its neck like a long balloon, when threatened.

Even during the rainy season, the Mara still manages to entertain!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Return of the Blog

Sorry for the lack of updates to the blog after our faithful contributor, Zach, left! I’m Deanna, the new research assistant here, receiving training from my very patient and helpful fellow RA, Noémie. In my few months here, we have already had many memorable experiences, both good and some less so, and one thing I’ve quickly learned to love about Africa is that incredible memories are the norm and every day brings a new adventure!

It’s been awhile so I’ll start with an update on our hyenas here at Serena Camp. First, both here and at Talek Camp, we witnessed a rare event of hyena infanticide! In our South Clan, the dominant female, Clovis (CLOV), had recently had only 1 new cub, Nali. Clovis’ second-ranked sister, Slinky, had just had 2 cubs, Rastapopulos (RAST) and Makuta (MAKU). Well this did not sit well with Clovis, who waited until a day when Slinky had left her cubs unattended at the den, and then she killed Makuta as he/she was playing with Rastapopulos and Nali! Nothing goes to waste among hyenas though, and Clovis fed the dead cub to her older subadult cubs, Ranch and Cheese Whiz. Within 10 minutes, there was nothing left of poor Makuta, but Clovis fulfilled her role as dominant female and loving mother quite well! They have since moved their den and are split between 2 new dens, making our jobs very difficult. One den is surrounded by bushes and a semi-dry riverbed. The other is on the opposite side of the riverbed and surrounded by a field of various-sized rocks, making it impossible to get closer than 100 meters and aptly named by Noémie as Nightmare Den.
 Clovis: the biggest, the meanest, the smelliest

In Happy Zebra clan, we have an overwhelming amount of cuteness at their den, with 13 cubs (theoretically, although 2 have not been seen in at least a month) play romping around and occasionally forming an indistinguishable pile of fur on chilly mornings. As exasperating as it can get, trying to ID and keep track of all the interactions between these cubs and other hyenas at the den, they make up for it in adorable moments.

In North clan, we have had some interesting interactions, indicative of a rank reversal. Three rough-looking lower-ranking females (Peepers, Waffles, and Eleanor) banded together and chased away the dominant female (RBC). In subsequent observations, RBC has displayed submissive behaviors (ears back, giggling, presenting her rear for inspection, being chased) to most of the other hyenas and their cubs, as though she has fallen from the top to near the bottom of the hierarchy. Many of the North hyenas are in pretty bad shape right now after an alleged bout with lions over a hippo carcass. Hooker is slowly regaining use of her left eye and has gained weight after looking frighteningly anorexic. Many hyenas had open gashes, bad limps, and puncture wounds, but they are healing quickly by human standards!

We were also fortunate enough to see 3 cheetah cubs at 8 weeks old with their mother and hear the famous cheetah chirp! However, the following week, the Mara Conservancy manager, Brian Heath, alerted us that the cubs’ mother was missing (probably killed by lions). We were privileged enough to accompany him and the rangers as they captured the 3 cubs. They are currently residing in an enclosure in Brian’s camp. The Mara has had bad luck with cheetahs since 2008, when the wildebeest migration brought a bad case of mange here that reduced the cheetah population by almost half. The Mara has not had a litter of cheetah cubs survive to adulthood in over 2 years, which makes these 3 cubs’ lives very important to the future of cheetahs here! Thankfully they will be guaranteed food and safety until they reach adulthood and can be released back into the reserve.

I am a bit of a cheetah fanatic so I apologize in advance if I become more focused on cheetahs than hyenas in the future, but I will try my best!

Noémie and I are also inadvertently becoming learned mechanics. We have yet to go a week without some sort of issue arising with either of our vehicles and have had to employ a hydraulic jack on several occasions, even before leaving Nairobi to come to the Mara! We have also spent some of our free time attempting to learn Swahili from the Masai men who help keep camp in order: Moses, Philimon, and George. It’s more impressive coming from Noémie, who is from Switzerland so she translates between French, English, and Swahili! As they say in Swahili, tuna jifunza pole pole (we are learning slowly, slowly).

Among the more memorable of our many nightly adventures, Noémie had a giraffe trip over a guy line of her tent one night and almost take the whole thing with it. We have had hippo and buffalo wars waged in the bush surrounding camp, elephants grumbling their disapproval of our campfire one night, lions mating on the plains in front of camp (and keeping us awake all night!) and rabbits racing for their lives from hyenas and genets but not succeeding as evidenced by clumps of rabbit fur the next morning.

We’ll try to keep contributing updates to the blog! Thank you for your patience, it was a steep learning curve in the beginning but we’re finally getting into as nice a routine as Africa will let us!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Listening for the Quiet of Nature

People who talk too much make me nervous. I have met that person many times in many different locations throughout my life. Given any topic on which to form an opinion, or merely a willing audience, and the talking starts. I am that guy on more than too many occasions. If someone is listening the convention is to keep talking. Although, I enjoy a good conversation, there is something alluring about a quiet place in nature to escape for a bit. The Mara seems like that sort of place.

When I first arrived, I thought that surely the Mara, isolated and bound from human intrusion by a formidable river, an international boundary, an escarpment, and a vigilant conservancy, would be a quiet retreat. The Mara is seldom quiet. It has inspired me as much as it has challenged me, and I have yet to figure most of it out. But in my time here I have been the audience to an ensemble of noise (and I have probably talked more than necessary as well). Some of what I have heard in the Mara, I will reflect on fondly, and the visual experience is far from complete because there is much to learn from what is heard…the key is to be quiet enough to listen.

The sounds I think I will not miss after leaving the Mara include: the cold crank of tired field vehicle that has no will to start; the whining whur of mosquitoes escorting you from the lab tent to the bathroom and back again during the wet season; the chiming fruit bat ‘alarm clock’ calls of Talek camp that are most loud exactly one hour before you actually need to wake up; a night long serenade of baseline thumping from the Serena hotel staff parties; the broken reception of a internet call or a far too expensive phone call to family or friends at home; the accelerating fan of an inverter signaling the end of your available power supply as the solar system nears over draw; the squabbling of baboons that have just raided your store tent; the midnight crunching of jerry cans (full of water or fuel) suffering loss of structural integrity to the curiosity of wandering hyenas.

On the other hand I think what I will miss the most being away from the Mara are also sounds: the churning stomach acids of a hippo grazing at arms length on the other side of the tent wall at night; the exploratory and experimental attempt of a 4 week old hyena cub whooping when excited by some unknown ecstasy at the den; the whistle of white-faced whistling ducks overhead (probably the longing for the 2011 duck season forever gone); the roar of a nearby (less than 10m) lion that you can feel rattle your diaphragm, the pop of champagne bottles at the end of a incredible balloon flight just before an exquisite breakfast in good company; the thermo-regulating? or competitive signaling? dewlap vibrating from my tent’s resident skink or gecko (not sure which one or why they vibrated the tent tarp); the Tusker inspired stories of grandeur and danger shared by Ian our mechanic; and my favorite sound… the territorial chugging, like sawing wood, of a proud male leopard reminding you whose camp you are visiting, but otherwise whom silently cruises through camp unnoticed with the exception of a brief eye shine if you dare to use the bathroom after dark.

And there are sounds which I have not formed such a strong opinion about, but they do exist and are worth paying attention to: the trumpet of an elephant suggesting that you have encroached too close; the sort of flexing hiss of an annoyed velvet green night adder; the screech of a fleeting plover that explodes in your headlights just barely avoiding being hit on the road, the asynchronous bellow of thousands of wildebeest happy to have crossed the river but fearing the gauntlet of hyenas and lions to come; the giggling, squealing, whooping, and yelling of hyenas sorting feeding rights at a kill.

Of course there are more sounds, but an exhaustive list would be just that…for both audience and myself. Anyway I need to finish packing but I am sure when I next talk of my time in the Mara I will have a lot to say. I wonder if I have been quiet enough to listen and learn anything? Alone in the middle of nowhere, the middle of the Mara, and over all that other noise the one person I could always hear was me. I think I/we talk too much and there is a lot to be heard in the quiet of nature. People who talk too much make me nervous… but thanks for listening.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science