Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Mighty Rangsang

Last week, we in Serena were treated to an incredibly rare sighting; one of our hyenas, Rangsang (RANG) killed a wildebeest right in front of our car on the road. We often see hyenas hunting animals, and come across carcasses quite a bit, but the actual takedown of an animal is very unusual to see.

This kill is unique in that Rang doesn't use the normal hyena hunting technique of coursing, or running animals to exhaustion then ripping out their stomach. This wildebeest tripped right in front of her, so she grabbed it and broke its neck.

Rang is one of the higher-ranking hyenas in South clan. Her mom, Java, is the matriarch, and Rang is Java's muscle. We didn't see Rang for a while, but she is back at the den right now, hopefully nursing some new cubs. Be on the lookout for some new black cubs!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Exploding Hyena

While on observations a few weeks ago, we came across a dead hyena on the side of the road. We got out of the car to inspect this individual and noticed that it had swelled to about double a normal hyena’s size. Unable to recognize it as one of our own, we got a little closer to take ID photographs, and that’s when we heard it farting! We realized that gas was exiting the body and that this hyena was ready to explode! 
Notice the swelling.
Upon our (reluctant) inspection we noticed that she had a huge scrape on her left shoulder, but due to swelling (and fear of explosion), we were unable to feel for broken bones. Her shoulder wound was large, wet, and literally bubbling from escaping gas! With no obvious bite wounds or any other signs of being in a fight, we figured that she was probably hit by a car, and based on her size and state, we estimated that she died sometime the previous day.
The bubbling wound.
We are currently not doing complete necropsies, which is partially due to difficulties getting hyena skulls back to the US, but we still collect basic information when possible; this includes body measurements, dental measurements, and collecting tissue samples for DNA. As we stood a healthy distance from the newly dubbed Farting Bomb, we debated whether getting a tissue sample was worth the possibility of explosion, but eventually, I decided to just go for it. I grabbed a sterile blade and sliced off a thin section of ear, which quickly began to bleed. We all jumped a few steps back and packaged the sample into a vile.
Getting the tissue sample.
Back at camp we were able to ID her as a hyena named SEHE, from a clan we no longer study called “Fig Tree.” From this, we were able to properly label the vile containing her tissue sample and place it in our LN2 tanks for use in the US. All in all it was a good day, SEHE did not explode on us, and we were able to get valuable information about her for use in the lab back home.
Putting SEHE's tissue sample in a vile.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Greetings to all and sundry, my name is Jack Grady, from St. Louis Missouri. I graduated in 2017 from Duke University with a Bachelor’s in Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology with a concentration in animal behavior. I first learned of the Hyena project when I studied on BEAM (Behavioral Ecology of African Mammals) back in 2015. I was impressed not only with the amazing wildlife, but also with the camps and the grad students.

My first two weeks in Kenya have been jam packed but incredible. I’ve been going through the classic struggles of camp life: waking up at 5:00 am everyday, checking the bed for spiders, trying to figure out how to drive manual transmission, memorizing the land marks, and most importantly learning how to recognize the 200+ hyenas. That last one has been the biggest struggle, but I’m finally starting to get the hang of it, I can recognize three of them by sight.

Some of the highlights with the hyenas have been naming Buenos Aires latest cub, Slug (her linage all have measurement names), and seeing 3 different mothers of the West Talek Clan bring their cubs to the central den of their territory. There are now seven adorable, uncoordinated cubs in that den now, and they are hilarious to watch. We also watched a hyena casually sniffing a buffalo, just for fun it seemed, and I also saw my first scrum at a kill.

Camp life has also been fantastic; I drove stick for the first time in my life and only stalled three times. Playing volleyball with the Maasai staff has been so much fun, and Joseph, our cook, has made fantastic meals every day. Even the showers are awesome. I know that the workload will start to ramp up once we begin doing transcriptions but for now it’s been extremely tranquil and idyllic. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.

This is Slug!

 First kill session

A hyena just cuddling with a buffalo.

Sunsets like these makes me love this job.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

First Week in the Mara


My name is Leah, I graduated from Michigan State University this past May. While there I studied Animal Science with a concentration in companion and exotic animal biology. While I have always loved animals, I developed an interest in animal behavior volunteering in the hyena lab my junior and senior years at MSU. While this merely entailed pulling behaviors from field notes on lion-hyena interactions, I found the process interesting. I got my first experience with the entire research project while on BEAM, the Behavioral Ecology of African Mammals study abroad to Kenya in 2015, and there decided that I definitely wanted to focus my future career on behavioral research. I completed an independent research project this past spring comparing male and female hyena participation in lion-hyena interactions. Not only did I learn more about the research process, but I also learned that female hyenas are some tough cookies! They participate in the majority of interactions, and in a specific behavior called “mobbing” where hyenas will band together and rush their opponent (in this case lions).

Since I have been here just over a week, Ill share some highs and lows of my initial exposure to fieldwork. My biggest high so far (there have been LOTS to choose from already) was when we darted Legend. We dart hyenas to take more specific measurements than we ever could just watching them as well as taking blood samples for analysis. While this is an incredibly serious task and is not to be taken lightly, it was still fun and I learned a lot. My low was definitely a den session from a few days ago, where one adult hyena brought a carcass that had most likely been in the sun, and smelled absolutely terrible-but when your job is watching hyenas, that’s just something you’ve got to learn to deal with.

I can’t wait to see what the rest of this year brings!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Beginner's Luck

I'm Julie, a new PhD student with the hyena project. I recently finished my master’s degree in Conservation Ecology at the University of Michigan where I studied feeding and behavioral ecology of gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia. I’m thrilled to be joining the Hyena Project, and learning how to transition from studying monkeys to hyenas. Luckily, both are fascinating!

A band of geladas in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Geladas are closely related to baboons, but belong to a different genus, Theropithecus, and only live in the Ethiopian highlands. Geladas live in large multi-level societies, and spend much of their day moving across high altitude plateaus and feeding on grass.

I was fortunate enough to get a chance to visit the Mara before starting the PhD program. This is a great opportunity to watch the hyenas and learn about how the data are collected to help me develop some ideas for my research. My trip started off in Serena Camp, where I had some serious beginner’s luck. My first morning out on "obs" with Lily and Kecil, the hyena Lily was conducting a cognition trial on looked up suddenly and ran off into the distance. Luckily, we were able to find where he ran off to and came upon a large group of hyenas feeding on a fresh warthog carcass. Just as we were settling in to watch the feeding session, two lionesses appeared out of the bushes, and started charging and roaring at the hyenas. The hyenas stood firm and mobbed the lions several times and retained control of the carcass. As the lions continue to circle the hyenas, we noticed four lion cubs in the bushes, waiting hopefully for a free meal. 


The lions attempted to get the carcass a few more times, but backed off.


The lions tried to get the carcass one more time. At the end of this video, you can see Waffles, the alpha female, take off with the carcass, leaving the rest of the hyenas to deal with the lions.


The hyenas eventually moved the carcass onto the road, and walked away from the lions. Waffles is on the far left with the carcass, while two hyenas stop to greet each other.

The lions trailed after them, but eventually gave up on their chance to steal breakfast, and watched the hyenas walk away. Hyenas often get a bad reputation for being scavengers and stealing from lions, so we had to set the record straight with a tour vehicle watching this interaction that the hyenas were the ones who made the kill, and the lions were attempting to steal it. This was clear because the lions had no blood on them, and many of the hyenas heads and necks were bloody from feeding.

One brave hyena approached the lions.

A few of the hyenas stop for a dip in the pond.

And that was only my first morning! My first week has been a whirlwind. I spent most of my time in Talek and have got to meet the field crew, seen many fascinating hyena behaviors and interactions, learned to identify a few hyenas, and seen tons of amazing wildlife including the wildebeest migration! I am heading back to Serena, and am looking forward to the rest of my time in the Mara!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science