Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Winter in Kenya

The migration is here and with it hot dry winds and brisk chill nights. It has not rained since the herds of wildebeest started to arrive and every car kicks up a cloud of dust behind it, visible from many kilometers away. The grass is parched and yellow though the massive seas of grass (where I can see nothing but grass in every direction) are starting to get grazed down. No longer are the sounds of the river and the wind the only things I hear- now the gentle lowing of wildebeest and kwa-kwaing of zebra echo in the distance.

When the zebra cross the river they do it slowly and carefully- but not without excitement. They gather on the banks until that critical mass has been reached and then finally one will take the first step into the river and start to wade across while the young ones are forced to swim. The river is not that high this year- many of the adults do not have to swim at all- but it is still high enough to take its toll.
Photo: A crocodile attempts to take down a zebra (unsuccessfully in this case).
When the wildebeest cross they do so with speed, as if without it they would not have the courage to cross at all. They kick up massive clouds of dust as they stampede towards the river and enter it without a glance, seemingly without planning or foresight. They scramble up the opposite slope as the dirt crumbles beneath their feet and sends many of them plunging back into the water. The carcasses are starting to pile up, catching on the rocky sections of the river and bloating in the sunlight. The vultures are ever-present hovering on the river banks, picking at the dead. Every vulture in Kenya is in the Mara now to enjoy the feast and marabou storks are a common sight. The crocodiles do not have to work very hard, in the frenzy of the crossing many wildebeest are trampled and drown. The many egrets, cranes, storks, and plovers that riddled the wet areas of the landscape a month ago are now a rarer sight.

Beyond the river and the lions and hyenas are getting fat. I have not seen a single dead zebra yet but there is at least one wildebeest carcass being eaten every day by the hyenas or the lions. This morning as some of the wildebeest were milling by the edge of the river, having recently crossed, we see lion ears poking out of the grass. A flash of movement and a young lion is leaping towards the scattered wildebeest. We drove closer and in another flash this lion has leaped onto the back of a wildebeest and taken it down. This is a group of four lions, a mother and three subadults. The wildebeest thrashes about for twenty minutes while the mother lets the subadults practice their killing grip.
Photo: Three north hyenas (Lady on the right) feed on the remains of a wildebeest carcass. 

The other day we came upon a freshly dead wildebeest with three hyenas feeding. The eyes were gone and the guts spilled from the belly, starting to balloon out in the heat. Carcass sessions do not have the same level of aggression, everyone has eaten recently and no one cares to squabble. Other animals show up occasionally but they are already fat and do not even bother to come close. Every inch of free space is starting to fill up with animals. I'll drive over the top of a hill and suddenly the sight of thousands of wildebeest and zebra is spread out in front of us fading into freckles on the horizon. As we drive along a track a few thousand wildebeest are glistening wet in the sunlight and loping across our path into the distance, like a living river they move away from the Mara, the survivors. We drive towards them and the herd moves smoothly, splitting around us until they gallop in front and behind us and then suddenly we are through and the gap we made seals itself without a sound. We drive on.
Photo: Ratchet carries a wildebeest tail while Lady follows.

Clouds build on the horizon in the afternoon and the low rumble of thunder greets the night but the storms stay away from this half of the Mara, instead they skirt the escarpment and we see lightning flashing in the highlands beyond. Still no rain. Wildebeest fill the small luggas and waterholes, covering their shiny coats with what mud is left. The sun is bright and scorching most days- other days the air is thick and hazy with smoke from fires in the south. A dusty sheen coats everything and anything beyond a kilometer quickly fades into the dust. The sky is brown and only if I look straight up can I see the blue peeking through. The dust from the hooves of a thousand grazers fills the air and merges with the smoke that covers the horizon. The light takes on a strange orange and brown glow- it is both stunningly beautiful and eerily surreal. At night the full moon rises and casts a strange white glow across the landscape, flashlights and headlamps rendered unnecessary. In the morning the moon sets slowly into the purple haze on the western horizon against the sea of yellow grass, aglow with the light of the the rising sun. 

Happy zebra hyena clan and north hyena clan have both moved dens. Happy zebra to a den just 500 meters away from their first one, a little further from the road and a little more tucked into the valley between two broad hills. Perhaps it is a little more private from the many steps of the wildebeest? North has moved down closer to the river to a den that is surrounded with thick nyazi grass with a few ideal flat open patches for socializing. Neither clan has to move far to hunt and feed now, food is on their door steps and even the males and subadults are fat. All the tracks are dry making it easy to travel to each corner of the territory but this time of year it is not necessary. Wells are starting to get low and eyes search the sky, wondering if those clouds blowing in will bring the rain here. Weather is very localized in the Mara - it may rain at the oloololo gate and be bright and sunny at the south gate on the same day.
Photo: Log Cabin (adult) and George Costanza (cub) with a carcass at the den.
Photo: The mara river, viewed from above.

A genet has shown his face in camp, being so bold as to approach the lab tent while we sit at the table with the light on. He briefly meets our gazes, ascertains that we do not have any food and continues on his way down to the kitchen tent. He has no luck down there either and we see him skirting the trees and disappearing into the darkness. During the day banded mongooses and dwarf mongooses befriend us, scurrying throughout camp and occasionally attempting to get into trouble. I don't mind them for it means that we will not see any snakes in camp while they are there. We did have a black mamba in camp last week, just a glimpse of twisting black flesh in the grass and leaves as it continued on its way through the woods.

The elephants have left now that the migration is here. They do not care for the thousands of noisy wildebeest invading their home and they have gradually disappeared from the area, slipping away quietly without a backwards glance in a way that one would not think to associate with creatures the size of elephants. I have learned that elephants have a unobtrusive manner about them that somehow causes them to blend into the background such that you hardly see them until they flick an ear or turn their heads and you catch a glimpse of white tusk. Unless it is night time and you rudely interrupt the herd as they cross the road. Then elephants are the scariest and most dangerous thing in the Mara as they flare their ears and raise their trunks to trumpet their anger at your noisy intrusion into their quiet lives. 
Photo: Log Cabin (adult) and George Costanza (cub) relaxing early one morning.

The youngest little black cubs are starting to get their spots and show their faces to the rest of the world. While their mothers sleep by the den holes they boldly step a few meters away then run, trip, and tumble back. They are quite the curiosity to other hyenas who steal careful glances at the mother and then gently lick and play with the newest member of the clan. The males have started showing up around the den more often too, perhaps drawn by the females whose cubs are graduating or perhaps with full bellies they just have more time on their hands (paws). Matings and immigrations (of new males from other clans) tend to peak around the migration. They too show high curiosity towards the cubs but the adult females are quick to chase them off if they get too close and then the cubs join in the chase as if it's a game - keep the males away! 
Photo: Ypsilanti (left) cautiously approaches Log Cabin (right) and George Costanza (cub). 

At night I've been zipping up my tent tight, no longer allowing the gentle night breeze to sooth my dreams. Nights are chill now and I pull on sweatpants, a long sleeve shirt, and pile on the blankets. Waking in the darkness at 5:15am is hard, and putting my feet down on the floor of my tent in the cold night air is difficult. But when I unzip my tent to step outside and relieve myself in the woods the gentle scent of forest in the morning fills my senses and I scan with my light quickly (looking for eyes) while the smells and sounds of the Mara invigorate me. By breakfast time I have peeled off my layers and retreated to the shade of the lab tent. Still- no rain.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Target, Interrupted

By Moira Donovan, IRES 2013

Hey there! I’m Moira, one of the new IRES students assisting the lab this summer. I’m currently stationed in the Serena Camp, helping with “Target” trials. “Target” is a life-size styrofoam model of a hyena, made by a company that manufactures archery targets—hence his name. Julie, the graduate student whose research I am helping with, uses Target to test hyena “boldness.” Her research focuses on social intelligence (how well a hyena interacts with others in a group environment) and personality aspects that might contribute to it. We measure boldness by observing whether a hyena approaches Target and when the hyena realizes Target is not an actual hyena.

In order to conduct a Target trial, we first need to find a lone hyena traveling a predictable path. We then drive ahead of the hyena, deposit Target along its path, and wait nearby to observe what the hyena does. Two nights ago, Julie, Lily, and I went out on our usual evening observations in search of an opportunity for a Target trial. We drove to the Happy Zebra Clan Territory, hoping to find an unsuspecting individual. I never imagined I would be so lucky as to experience what happened next.

Target and Moira

Soon after entering the territory, we spotted a single hyena loping along. We sat in our seats, deciding whether this would be a proper candidate for a trial, as the hyena rushed across the road and continued in a straight line. Clearly, this one was headed somewhere important. As Lily turned the Hilux off-road and we began to pursue, the urgency of the chase dawned on us – we could hardly keep up at 25kph. We hit a rocky portion, forcing us to slow down, and we were sure we would lose sight of the unidentified hyena. As we maneuvered around the rocks we saw three more hyenas join the first, bolting toward a herd of Cape buffalo. On the outskirts of what must have been 200 buffalo, we saw the hyenas and knew we were going to witness something extraordinary.

Spotted hyenas typically prefer to hunt alone rather than potentially lose their meal to a higher-ranked individual. This time, however, we spotted at least ten individuals when we got there, and a few others arrived in the following hour. Despite our difficulties recording hyena behavior through the darkness, rain, and tall grass, the effects of a large hunting party were clear. While two hyenas warded off an adult buffalo’s charges, several others closed a circle around a fallen calf and began to feed, taking advantage of their allies’ efforts. Once the adult buffalo gave up on trying to protect the calf, what followed may have seemed to the untrained eye (like mine) like a free-for-all between the hungry hyenas. But if you can observe closely, and if you know the identity and social status of each hyena, you can see method in the madness.

Higher-ranked individuals have priority of access to resources. In spotted hyena society, this means that feeding order is dictated by matriline: the highest-ranked female and her relatives eat first, then the next highest-ranked female and her relatives, and so on. The more dominant clan-mates chase off lower-ranked individuals who attempt to feed before their turns. Since immigrant males are at the bottom of the hierarchy, the three that were present were pushed to the outskirts and could only feed on scraps. As this event unfolded on just my the third night in the Mara, I had no clue as to which hyenas were who, but followed Julie and Lily as they called out behaviors and IDs while I filmed.

After the excitement of the hunt comes the analysis of the video. Because of the darkness and chaos of the hunt, we were unable to accurately identify individuals or behaviors at the time. Video recordings of events can be watched over and over again and at slow speed, to allow us to see what the hyenas actually did that night. One hour of video footage equated to three solid days of analysis. For analysis, all of the important behaviors performed by the hyenas are recorded in a text shorthand transcription for later reference. In order to record behaviors, however, one must be competent in identifying individual hyenas. I have not yet reached competence in that regard, but look forward to the day when my skills allow me to argue with another research assistant about who will drive during and who will transcribe after our observations.

In the past week, I have learned that most days in the field do not include so much drama. Although we didn’t manage to do a Target trial that evening, such interruptions in data collection add to the unpredictability of the field. In a place as new to me as the Mara, though, it’s the small and seemingly unremarkable moments that renew this experience, day after day. So, until I see another kill, the everyday beauty of the Mara – from the sunset reflecting off the grass to seeing the cutest baby elephant or a species of bird I never knew existed – keeps me fixed on this place. In the meantime, I am hoping for some Target trials….

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Alien Abduction!

I don’t know if you would remember from last summer, but part of my research is looking at hyenas’ boldness. So, I have been doing tests with a life-size model hyena which hyenas seem to interpret as an intruder. This model is actually an archery target, so we call it Target. Last year, I introduced you to Target and Junior, and this year I brought Targé III to the Mara with me.


The newly set up Targé III

Anyways, I have been conducting the same experiments as last year where I put Target out in front of a lone hyena and see how they react to the “intruder” to measure their boldness. I’m doing this experiment again this year firstly to get enough data to analyze; secondly, I want to compare the data I get from our Talek clans where there is a lot of human disturbance to our Serena clans where there is less human disturbance. Currently, I am in Serena, and these trials have been going really well. However, right now I’m going to tell the story of Diggory’s awful, no good, horrible, very bad day.

Diggory, otherwise known as Digs, is a hyena in our North clan at Serena. On this day in particular, I’m sure her day started as any other until she came ambling down a road by herself towards this crazy white car that always stops to look at her for a long time for some reason. Inside the car, I get all excited because it is the perfect set up for a Target trial. We rush to a bend in the road so that she won’t see us put out Targé before we even identify who is coming down the road. We pull to the side of the road to record her interaction with Targé, and Lily, the research assistant with me, actually looks at the hyena to figure out who she is. It quickly becomes apparent that the hyena is Digs because she has a big notch out of the lower part of her right ear.

Digs is sort of high ranked in the clan, which has made her a desirable target to Dave who wanted to dart her to put on a GPS collar. Dave had been trying for awhile to find a hyena around Digs’s rank to deploy his last GPS collar for his research. At first I was excited that we were getting a Target trial with Digs, but then I realized we couldn’t let Digs go out of sight at the end of the trial like I normally would if Dave was going to dart her. Diggory couldn’t disappear before Dave had a chance to reach us; he was in a different one of our territories. We let the Target trial continue, and Lily calls Dave to tell him to rush over for Digs.

Digs meanwhile is completely bewildered by Targé. She circles to get downwind of it, but she is a little hesitant to approach. She does everything in her power to figure out who this hyena is without having to get too close. In the end, Digs still gets closer to Targé than many of the Talek hyenas did, but she quickly decides to leave after doing so.


Diggory and Target

In the car, I’m trying to figure out the best time to end the trial. I can’t end it as I normally would because we would lose her, and Dave hadn’t arrived to follow her yet. In the end, I wait until she has walked about 40m away and is still facing away. We don’t want her to see us pick up Target because we don’t want the hyenas to associate too much weird stuff with our cars. However, she turns around just in time to see my summer student, Moira, lifting Targé into the back of the truck. I look up to see Digs turn around, and her whole body posture changes. She jumps, her head comes bolt upright with her ears pricked completely forward, her body tenses, and her tail sticks straight out from her body. It was then that I realize that she definitely had not recognized that Targé was not a real hyena; Digs looked as if she had just witnessed an alien abduction.

After pacing back and forth a bit, Digs seems to have settled herself enough to keep walking on, and of course, we follow. She goes off road, but we still follow her from a distance. Now we want her to be calm and not get spooked and run away before Dave can arrive to try to dart her. We slowly follow her for about twenty minutes until Dave reaches us. She keeps looking back at us, and in the car we were entertaining ourselves with a running narrative. “You’re still there? Why are you following me? I’m not doing anything interesting. I’m not even at the den with my cub where you usually spy on me. Maybe if I ignore you, you’ll go away. What, you’re still there? Good grief. You already took one hyena!”

Once Dave finds us and Digs, he continues to follow her for another hour and a half until she is in a good position to be darted. Lily, Moira, and I hang back further in case Digs somehow escapes Dave, Wes, and Emily. Finally, Digs’s morning is interrupted again when Dave darts her. We were all ecstatic because Dave had been trying for months to get that last collar out. But then the real alien abduction occurs. She is knocked out, we take all sorts of measurements from her, collect blood and bacterial samples, and then transport her in a car to a safe place to wake up.



Collecting samples and measurements from Digs

And after that terrible morning, Digs woke up wearing new jewelry, a lovely GPS collar. The collars seem to annoy them for the first day, but after that, they get used to it pretty quickly.


Digs looking spiffy in her collar

Luckily for us, Digs isn’t acting strange around the cars these days. We still see her, and now we can track her. But I wonder what she must have been thinking that entire morning.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Lab work in the field: Embracing my inner MacGyver

By Benjamin Hochfelder, IRES 2013

Photos, left to right: Lab work in the Grand Tetons, in the hyena research camp in Kenya, and in Omaha, NE.

Before traveling to Kenya to study the fascinating lives of hyenas for the summer, I spent most of my time working with marmoset monkeys and measuring hormones at the Callitrichid Research Center as an undergrad in Omaha, Nebraska. When working in a university lab setting, the main things that can go wrong tend to be the result of human error. It is rare that one worries about where the electricity in the lab is generated or if the freezer is cold or not. Doing lab work in Kenya would actually be the second time I was doing lab work at a field site. Last summer, my wife and I were doing research on little rodents called voles in the Grand Teton National Park. The field site in the Tetons was actually very nice and had all the amenities of a modern laboratory. At our camp in Kenya, instead of a fully equipped lab, there was a newspaper-covered wooden table on a pile of rocks. This table sits outside in a part of Kenya where running water is not one of the luxuries of life, and where a modest amount electricity is generated through solar panels. I was curious about what it would be like to do DNA lab work in a place like this.

I found out just five days after I had arrived at camp. An onslaught of rain made safely driving out into the sticky, muddy landscape an impossibility. Quite conveniently, this day had already been set aside as a “DNA day” at Talek camp. One might ask, what is a DNA day? It refers to an annual day where we extract DNA from the many samples of hyena blood collected during fieldwork. This is done so the DNA can be shipped back to the US for further analysis. Why would we want to look at hyena DNA? One of the most important aspects of studying behavior and interactions between individuals is knowing who is who and who is related to who. Since male hyenas do not provide any obvious parental care, even the best sleuths would have a hard time knowing who the father of each hyena cub is without the help of DNA. By knowing the family relationships between the hyenas, we can better understand the dynamics of their complicated lives.

Extracting DNA from blood is one of the easier tasks done in a standard laboratory setting. I’ve done it before, both in Omaha and at the lab in the Grand Tetons. However, something I have not done before is live in the African bush. As expected, field work is the bread and butter of our days here. But as it turns out, we can and must do a certain amount of traditional lab work as well. While the goal and techniques of this lab work are the same as at home, the details are far from traditional.

One of the biggest differences between this kind of lab work at home and in Kenya is the amount of teamwork involved. In the USA, taking a vile of hyena blood and extracting its genetic information would be a one person job, but here in the bush, it was a nine-person assembly line. 

After finishing the last savory bites of our eggs and toast at 9am, we pulled out a large tank of liquid nitrogen that contained the blood samples. For those who do not know, nitrogen is very cold in its liquid state and is very good at preserving blood and many other things that originate from a living creatures.

While birds chirped and vervet monkeys scurried around in the background, our team spent hours passing plastic tubes back and forth in a style that would make for a good episode of MacGyver (the 80’s fix-anything-with-a-pair-of-tweezers-and-tape TV show). In true MacGyver style, a scenario of constraints led to a steady supply of humor and some decent innovation to the tone of using a cardboard box as a test tube holder when there wasn’t any more room in the styrofoam racks.

As far as I could tell, our efforts were mostly a success. A few days later, the extracted DNA flew over 10,000 miles away from its original home to Michigan State University. Personally, it evokes a bit of awe to think that the molecules of genetic code used to transcribe and translate thousands of proteins while flowing in the blood of a hyena running across the plains of Africa has flown across the Atlantic Ocean frozen inside a tiny plastic tube. It will be exciting to learn what the information revealed can tell us about the relationships among the hyenas from which it came.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science