Thursday, December 29, 2016

Cubdate: The Cub Boom

As Olivia and I gear up for October-December note compilations, our hyenas aren’t making it any easier for us.  We’re in the midst of the annual post-migration cub boom – where lots of mothers, both old and new, bring tiny, squittering black cubs into the world.  With the den scenes escalating in excitement, Olivia and I will be scrambling to pin all the new faces to their respective mothers before we send our notes back to the lab.  Here we provide a tri-clan demographic update of adorableness for all your favorite Serena cubbers and fluffers.

North Clan:
This immortal cross-eyed snap of Beluga shall live on infamously in the annals of the MSU Hyena Project until the end of time.  Although her face is now catching up to the rest of her body, Beluga initially grew so fast she obtained the body of an 8-month-old cub with the head of 4-month-old cub (See top-left insert, ã Olivia Spagnuolo).  This, along with her unprecedented fluffiness, made for one disproportionate-looking furball.

Cubbers: Krazy Kat (KKAT), Garfield (GARF)

Fluffers: Diva (DIVA), Déjà Vu (DEJA), Beluga (BELA)

Graduates: Momo (MOMO), Appa (APPA), Corduroy (CRDY), Paddington Bear (PDTN), Aquabat (ABAT), Beastie Boy (BSTI)

The Down-Low: Despite being the largest clan that we study in the Mara Triangle, North Clan actually had one of the quietest den scenes for quite some time.  There were only two moms (POL and TERO) and three cubs: DIVA, DEJA, and BELA (particularly endearing due to her unique body-to-face ratio).  This is partially due to MOMO, APPA, CRDY, PDTN, ABAT, and BSTI successfully graduating so early in their lives, but it was still strange.  Now there has been an explosion of prospective mothers hanging around Judith Den and we believe WAFL, TEDY (first time mom!), and FUZZ have black cubs we haven’t seen yet. RMON and GUMY (first time mom!) seem to have two cubs apiece, although we haven’t seen them nurse yet to confirm them.  INK gave birth to KKAT and GARF in early October and they are just starting to get their full coats of spots.  Pending litter sizes, this could be an exciting cohort of 12 new cubs this year.

Happy Zebra Clan:
Happy Zebra cubs from left to right: QUAK (entering a deep telecommunic state with the ground), GOLI, ORB (just look at that exquisite beauty), and SKEP (ã Olivia Spagnuolo).  As evidenced by GOLI and SKEP (top-right insert), Happy Zebra cubs are capable of obtaining infinite cuteness.  And never shall we forget OMLY (bottom insert)!

Cubbers: The Kraken (KRKN), Chupacabra (CHPA), Caribou Lou (BULU), Jungle Juice (JUJU), Skeptic (SKEP), Cosmos (CSMO)

Fluffers: Orbweaver (ORB), Goliath Bird-Eating Spider (GOLI), Quack (QUAK)

Graduates: Grace O’Malley (OMLY), Mandrake (MBRK), Harriet Tubman (TBMN)

The Down-Low: All born around the same time and still in the black cub stage: KRKN, CHPA, BULU, and JUJU are impossible to differentiate at this point aside from when they are nursing from their mothers at the den.  Soon to the join them will be cubs from suspected mothers MUON and EREM.  While we haven’t seen cubs nursing from them yet, they have been sitting, digging, and groaning into and sitting in a lot of dens holes (in MUON the Subterranean Hyena’s case actually entering dens and sacking out for hours as well!) – giveaway signs of mothers interacting with cubs too small leave the den.  The Three Musketeers of Happy Zebra Clan are ORB (the most beautiful hyena cub in all the land with her sumptuous chestnut brown coat), GOLI, and QUAK.  These three go everywhere and explore everything together.  ORB, GOLI, and QUAK are also fond of playing “kill the carrier” with animal scraps of the most paramount importance, such as wildebeest horns, zebra tails, and gazelle femurs.  As unfortunate as it may seem, QUAK is a little slow.  He’ll often approach dangerously close to zebra stallions and wind up running for his life to avoid being trampled.  Another time, QUAK followed a female hyena, squittering profusely (a vocalization signaling a desire to nurse), for about 100m away from the den – only to realize that this hyena was in fact not his mother (RING) and stare longingly at the escarpment for several minutes.  Fortunately, through a complex algorithm and rigorous cognitive testing, we have confirmed that QUAK does indeed have a brain – even if it is a bit slow on the draw.  OMLY, the most recent graduate of Happy Zebra, was the previous fan favorite due to her quirky tenacity, steadfast resolve, and general silliness.  She still manages to thwart and foil all of our attempts to collect saliva stick, novel object, and inhibition trial data.  Often lope arriving out of the blue and doing her best Jaws imitation, OMLY loves to steal meat from cognition tubes, flee with water jugs, and sever Kimbo-swathed ropes shrouded in perfectly usable cub saliva.  Oh OMLY, always #1 in our hearts…

South Clan:

This is a formation known as a “cuddle”, short for a puddle of cubs – often times only seen in South Clan due to the sheer number of cubs needed to obtain a cuddle.  Just imagine, this is only half of the cub power of South den sessions.  Any mere mortals, would instantly be immobilized by the raw cuteness.  Lots of other fun things happen in South too…like JEMI using mom as a climbable object (See top-right insert, ã Olivia Spagnuolo).

Cubbers: Lake Toba (TOBA), Kapuas River (KAPU), Lee Adama (DAMA), Mae Jemison (JEMI)

Fluffers: Galactica (GATA), Axiom (AXIO), Anubis (ANUB), Akita (KITA), Belgian Tervuren (TERV), Moriarty (MORI), Maleficent (LEFI), War Admiral (AMRL), American Pharaoh (PHRH)

Graduates: Pixie (PIXI), Mohawk (MOH), Mirage (MIRA), Moulin Rouge (ROUG), The Lorax (LRAX)

The Down-Low: South is quite simply the Den that Never Sleeps – there are 13 den dependent cubs zooming around at 1,000 mph and being super hard to keep track of.  Out of our three clans, these guys are the happiest to see us when we roll up to the den – always romping over to the Land Cruiser when we approach.  They are currently denning at Moat Den, which in combination with the sheer number of cubs in South, is quite possibly the best situation for a hyena cub to grow up in (terrible for catching behaviors though!) - lots of cubs to play romp through ponds and tall grass with.  The pranksters are DAMA and MORI – two crazy boys who love noming and dismantling our poor, old research vehicles.  TOBA, KAPU, and JEMI are the youngest cubs, with TOBA and KAPU clearly understanding that they are the daughters of the matriarch JAVA.  Exuding a quiet confidence, they don’t allow anybody to aggress on them.  Now that our cohort of fluffers are getting their long, shaggy coats, there is certainly an added a level of difficulty to identifying them around the den – especially AXIO, PHRH, LEFI, AMRL, and ANUB.  PIXI, MOH, MIRA, ROUG, and LRAX have all graduated in the last couple of months and have been congregating together at their big kid hangout spots on the Candy Bar Plains.  However, recently they’ve all taken turns visiting their little cousins back at the communal den.  Finally, even when we thought South Clan could not accommodate any more cubs than they currently had – WHIZ pops up at the communal den with a new little black cub in tow.  With their little cub army of reinforcements, South may be making the push in the next couple of years to be the largest clan we study in the Mara Triangle.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Jame's rescue and my first darting!

As hyena researchers, we devote our time and full attention to the clans we study. Our families are far away; our new family is here in fisi camp and includes the hyenas. It is a given that we spend A LOT of time with our hyenas. We watch them for 6-8 hours a day, every day. Back in camp, we spend the rest of our afternoon writing and thinking about them. So, when one of our hyenas is suffering, it makes the watching hard.

When I arrived 2 months ago, a subadult named Jame was injured. He had a snare around his neck. Snares are sometimes used by people hoping to catch bush meat, or by home owners protecting the bomas, the corrals where livestock are sheltered.  When Jame was first seen 6 months ago, he already had one of these snares around his neck. We estimated that he was around a year old at that first sighting. This means for a third or more of Jame’s life, he has experienced regular pain and difficulties in some normal daily activities, for example while grooming or bending to drink water. As he grew, the snare became tighter and tighter. It cut deeply into his neck, and everyone was surprised each time we saw him alive. We waited as Jame’s condition deteriorated, hoping that this was a rare instance where we could intervene. Jame would need to be darted to remove the snare and save his life.

Jame first seen with the snare around his neck.
I had never seen a darting, and understood it to be a potentially stressful event for us and the hyenas. The conditions have to be just right. The individual needs to be separated from the rest of the clan. And it is also important that the individual be close to the car, to ensure accuracy from the shooter. Fortunately, we have Benson. Benson Pion holds one of the best (if not THE best) darting records in mammalogy labs today. He has darted nearly 100 hyenas, and none of his dartings have resulted in injury to the animal. I had every confidence that Benson could be successful.

We were instructed to wait for Kay, and when she finally arrived we all immediately set out to find and dart Jame. One of Kay's first days out, they found Jame. Everyone was on edge waiting for a call saying his snare had been removed. Unfortunately that day the conditions were not right. Jame was skittish of the car (and everything else too) and they could not get close enough to take the shot. We were all feeling pretty down, wondering if we would get another chance, or if we would have to watch as Jame slowly died. But the very next day we found him again. That day both of our research cars were on the site. Benson and Kay in the smaller (and hopefully less scary) car. Meanwhile, Lily, Rebecca, and I waited anxiously in the bigger cruiser. We saw the gun slide out the window, and a dart fly from its end into Jame. He reeled and bit at the spot, before starting to slow down. He became visibly more drunk, until he finally lay down, he was out. 

Kay and Benson working to remove
the snare.

YES! We were so relieved! Jame was down and we rushed up and carefully but quickly cut the snare loose. The wire had cut very deeply into his neck, and kept the wound fresh. When we removed it we were shocked by how small the noose was, and again we were all surprised by Jame's resilience. Once the wire was removed we coated his neck with antibacterial powder, took a few samples that were quick and noninvasive, and loaded him into the back of the car. Then he was taken to a safe spot, hidden in the bushes to wake up. Lily and I, a little shaken up, continued our obs session. All any of us could do now was to wait and see if he healed without infection.
The snare diameter was surprisingly small.

Benson takes skull measurements after we applied the white antibacterial powder.
Over the course of 10 days or so, we saw Jame twice. Once the night after the snare was removed, when we went to check on his hiding place. Then once again today! We are really happy to report that Jame is looking healthy and he appears to be healing well! 

Jame seen on the 22nd of December with a healing wound!

It was a fairly emotional first darting, but we are all really pleased with the results. And of course, Benson continues to grow his list of successful dartings!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Difficulty and humor when testing hyena cognition...

Update: Hall of Shame is still coming up soon.. but first... some goofy hyena videos.

Testing the cognition of hyenas in the wild can be really difficult, but it's also really fun. MVUA, a young subadult hyena in Talek West, just opened the multi-access box last night (Dec 5th). Unfortunately for me, she was one of 16 hyenas to come up and interact with the box. It's taken me hours to code the video and keep all the hyenas straight! I ended up taking screen shots with ID labels in order to remember who sacked out where. 

For those who are new: the multi-access box is a puzzle box baited with meat. There are four different "doors" for getting inside the box that all require different motor behaviors to open. I'm using it to test hyena innovation and learning. MVUA ultimately opened the box using the "door knob" side. It's a door with a hinge on the bottom and a door knob near the top that opens down and out like an oven door. It's proving to be the hyena's favorite way to open the box. 

Minute 3:28: EIGHT hyenas in my video. And they're all mussy subadults with bad spots.

Minute 5:43: A few more hyenas have sacked out... trying to remember who sacked out where. We're at 11 hyenas now.

Minute 6:55: Now there's a cub pile to the left of the box and I can hardly tell where one cub ends and the other begins! 

Minute: 10:25: Finally, here's the moment where MVUA opens the box. Identifying what everyone was doing at that second was a challenge. 

However, moments like the ones below make up for all the hard work! Hyenas rank at the top in terms of goofy, silly, and creative behavior... especially when they're playing with my cognition apparatuses (aka "toys" to hyenas).

RAST was pretty nervous about the tube, so she used the ditch to hide and sneak a look at it. 

South cubs explore the multi-access box and scare themselves! 

DAMA actually went entirely inside the box. 

GNUG tries to see if he can fit through the box. 

SOUP was really excited to come check out the tube, only the real puzzle here was how to get to it!

And then there was that time a stork walked over and got the meat before Wallflower did. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Rate the Mara: Common Eland (Taurotraigus oryx)

Hello all! Rate The Mara is a possible series I may post every now and then, when the blog is need of an infusion of subpar humor.  It's intended to be a gleeful series presenting some facts about the animal, having some fun, and giving a completely arbitrary, subjective, and overall meaningless rating to species we encounter in the Maasai Mara.  We'll see where it goes.  Enjoy!

A magnificent bull Eland sporting a trendy dewlap* around its jowly neck.
Height: 1.6m (♂♂) and 1.4m (♀♀) at the shoulder    

Weight: 500-600kg (♂♂) and 340-445 kg (♀♀), largest being 942kg

First Described By: Peter Simon Pallas in 1766

Number of Horns: 2                            Number of Legs: 4

Does it have a tail?: Yes! Very handy for swatting those pesky biting insects.                   

Circadian Rhythm: Diurnal 

Mara High School Superlative: Largest antelope in Kenya…definitely largest antelope in its graduating class, only the Giant Eland is greater in size but he plays for our cross-continent rivals and is not considered in this analysis.

Best Friend in the Mara: Sadly, none really – Eland are kind of stuck up and they don’t like associating with others outside of their herd.  They are still really beautiful though!

Predator Response:  Not many carnivores are insane enough to attack Eland.  They congregate in large herds of up to 500 individuals, are very wary and shy of outsiders, can move surprisingly quickly for animals of their size…oh yeah and their size, would you want to take on an animal capable of acquiring the mass of a metric ton? But if a carnivore was insane enough, the Eland would utilize postural movements, its advanced vocal repertoire of loud barks, and the flehmen response to warn others of danger.  The herd would then gracefully vacate the area.  Normally predators are so very mesmerized by the graceful, synchronized gliding of the Eland that they simply stop and stare to relish such a beautiful sight. 

Preferred Habitat: Common Eland prefer habitats with a wide variety of flowering plants like savannah, woodlands, and even montane grasslands…but they despise dense forest because even though they won’t admit it, they are very afraid of the dark (some even sleep with night lights!).

Special Powers: The Eland is capable of jumping 2.4 meters straight into the air from a standstill, which not only means that it can box jump Yao Ming – but also complete a 100m hurdle involving Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Frankenstein, James P. Sullivan from Monsters Inc., and the Flying Spaghetti Monster faster than Kendra Harrison.  Also as a footnote, males are capable of growing a dewlap*, very special indeed.  This unique feature is a continuous piece of loose skin which hangs about their necks with a tuft of thick black hair growing on the end that increases their sexiness to female Eland.

Weaknesses: The Eland cannot sprint, anatomically cannot – perhaps due the fact that it can outweigh a Volkswagen Beetle.  However, as meager compensation evolution saw fit to grant them the power to out-trot every other antelope in the animal kingdom.  Seriously they are really good a trotting.

If it was rendered into one of the Original 151 Pokémon:
650 HP, 450 Defense, 300 Attack, 330 Special, 240 Speed.

Is it Noble?: Absolutely, look up nobility in your dictionary and you will find a picture of an Eland.  Eland is also a synonym for nobility if you have one of those fantastic pocket thesaurus gizmos on your person.

What would happen if it fought a Lion?: First of all, female Eland would not fight a lion, they would abstain peacefully.  However, male Eland with lower moral standards could be tricked into fighting a lion.  The Eland could not out-sprint the lion, since it literally can’t, but it could trot away from it for a significant period of time.  Whenever the lion got close the Eland would simply box jump over it and continue trotting in the opposite direction.  Eventually, the lion would become so exhausted from dehydration that it would faint – ceding the KO to the Eland by default.

Final Rating: 9/10

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science