Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Demigods of Hospitality

Have you ever wondered how Fisi Campers in the Mara Triangle can collect data tirelessly day after day after day?  Well the secret is that Serena Camp has a backbone that few outside the project know about.  Actually, there are two backbones, and their names are: Philimon and Moses.  They humbly accept the title of “Camp Attendants”, but what they do on a daily basis is closer to quests of epic-heroes of ancient history, akin to Gilgamesh and Hercules.  Philimon and Moses cook our meals for us, clean the dishes, wash our clothes, cut the grass to keep venomous snakes at bay, wash the cars, purify our drinking water, sweep the tents, care for our guests, keep large game away from camp, care for our guests, fix broken tent zippers, maintain the tent tarps that keep us dry, prepare goats for inhibition trials, point out interesting wildlife around camp (like chameleons!), liaison with local farmers to get all the fruits and veggies we crave…I mean I could literally write an entire page for the duties they carry out on a daily basis – some of which aren’t even part of their job description, but they do it anyway just because they know it will make us happy.  Most of the time, they know what we need even before we ourselves know.  Fresh towels will mysteriously show up outside tents, zippers will be magically fixed before we even have the opportunity to report them as broken, cakes will be baked to take out as snacks on observations without prompting (Their excuse was that we had extra sugar that they wanted to use), and even when the Triangle is over 50% mud we will still have the cleanest cars in the Mara.  There are even whispers that Philimon and Moses can influence local weather patterns for short periods of time.  We go out many a night in the rainy seasons and look up at the sky to realize that there is a singular shaft of light shining over camp and the territory we’re working in, surrounded by torrential downpours.  It still remains unclear just how the guys channel this degree of environmental energy.
Philimon and Moses' pride and joy...behold the immaculacy of the Serena kitchen tent, the source of all of Serena's culinary happiness.
The most egregious example of their complete and utter desire to, not only go above and beyond their basic responsibilities, but decrease the amount of stress in our lives was when we were attempting to get a wiring guru from the town of Kilgoris down to the camp to perform a life-saving electrical overhaul on KAL.  We kept getting blown off by this fellow, who had one excuse after another.  Philimon deemed this situation unacceptable with the cruiser just idling away in the driveway and unable to be used for observations, so unbeknownst to us he called a bunch of mechanics and demanded to know where he could find a wiring specialist with the professional know-how to get KAL back into the fight.  The next day an electrician from Itong came to camp, completely rewired the cruiser in a single day (it was expected to be a three-day job) and we haven’t had an electrical problem with KAL ever since.  If you ask the guys why they do what they do, they’ll tell you: “We do everything we can to make [the RA’s] lives easy so [the RA’s] only focus on their work”.  The first time they said this to me was probably one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had in the last couple of years, especially given the amount of time they spend away from their own families to take care of us. 
Philimon (left) and Moses (right) with the lab tent in the background.

Philimon and Moses are truly amazing individuals.  So out of appreciation for their incredible daily efforts, I’d like you guys to get to know a little bit more about them.  Philimon and Moses are brothers, with Philmon being the elder.  They come from the town of Kilgoris which is about 75km from the Mara Triangle.  Grew up in the Naiguran family with five brothers and 3 sisters, and they hail from the Maasai tribe.   In Kilgoris, Philimon lives on the hill Shartuka with his wife where he has three boys and five girls of his own.  He owns five dairy cows and grows maize, beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas on his land.  Philimon has worked for the project for nine years, before which he was a sauce chef at African Safari Club.  Meanwhile, Moses lives on the hill Orongai.  His family consists of his wife, three boys and three girls.  He grows bananas, skuma (collard greens), and beans, amongst other small plots of produce.  For livestock, Moses keeps eight cows and seven sheep.  Before he worked for Fisi camp, Moses worked on a hot air balloon crew at Fig Tree camp, but he’s been going eight years strong with us.  When asked about their favorite meals at home – Philimon went with the age-old tradition of ugali (a maize flour staple in East Africa), skuma, nyama (meat), and milk from his cows; while Moses prefers ugali, gtherie (a mix of corns and beans), and chapatti (a soft flatbread originally from India).  In camp, their favorite chore (and pastime) is walking around camp in the early morning and inspecting the tarps, tents, and other camp belongings to ensure they’re 1) still present and have not been stolen by the fisi and 2) are in tip-top shape.  Hm? What’s that? You want to know what their least favorite activity in camp is? Stop being so foolish, this is Philimon and Moses we’re talking about! They love every aspect of their jobs, you can ask them yourself if you don’t believe me!

Monday, May 15, 2017

To the Moms

Moms across the animal kingdom come in all shapes and sizes, though few share a bond as close and longstanding as our hyena mothers and their kin. Juvenile spotted hyenas can take as long as 2 years to achieve full independence, owing in part to the extremely long developmental period of their jaw bones and muscles. Even through the end of their juvenile stage and into adulthood, female hyenas remaining in the clan retain a longstanding attachment to their mothers, sisters, and aunts, supporting one another in competition with other carnivores and other members of their clan for food and living space. However, not all moms are built alike, and mothering styles can vary widely from female to female, sometimes leading to interesting behavioral differences in offspring from what could be considered the “norm.” This is a new and exciting field of research in our hyenas, which we’re just beginning to explore and understand, but for now I’d like to highlight some of the most unique stories of moms in our clans. 

Talek West

Buenos Aires (BUAR)

BUAR maintains her leadership over the clan in part by raising tough-as-nails kids to ensure her rank, even in her absence. BUAR’s style consists, in large part, of knowing and determining where everything and everyone is at any point in time. Her kids are no exception: when HRTZ and NANO were young, one could see large visible bald patches on their sides (pictured here), something I’ve seen on no other black cub this year. We were later to discover that these patches are the result of BUAR’s constant fondness for picking up (with no degree of gentleness) and placing her cubs exactly where she desires them to be, an often tedious and repetitive affair which happens many times in one session. If BUAR decides she needs the attention or presence of her cubs, she isn’t above interrupting play bouts, naps, and even nursing to forcefully reposition them into a place in which she can keep a more watchful eye over them. On occasion, this behavior even extends to the cubs of other moms, although in these cases, it seems to be more of a show of dominance than anything else. Despite the unusual nature of her meddling, BUAR is a highly successful mom. In her 7.5 years of life, only one of her eight cubs has died prematurely, a rare feat among hyenas. Indeed her goal is not to disrupt the interests of her offspring, but to build a strong and lasting bond with them (whether they are male or female). Such a bond is secured and maintained through long, consistent bouts of time spent with them, an abundance of nursing before they are weaned, and continuous lessons on their rank through coalitionary aggressions on lower-ranking clanmates. Even into adulthood, this affiliative behavior is not forgotten, and members of the royal family can be seen hanging out together at a higher rate than other families within the Main Doc clan.

Borana (BORA)

CALA, BORA's latest cub
For some moms, especially those who are relatively new to raising cubs, the mothering instinct simply isn’t as strong as others. Some mothers have been known to actively and consistently aggress on cubs trying to nurse, refuse to groom their own cubs, or force their cubs to stand while nursing by never laying down or paying attention to them while at the den. A very stark example of this instinct was shown in this year’s litter of cubs. To give some background, MAA and BORA are both mid ranking sisters in Main Doc clan, separated by 2 years in age. MAA gave birth to her second litter this year, while BORA began her third. At first glance, some interesting differences between the behavior of the older children of these sisters arise. Despite their similarity in rank, MAA’s eldest Flamelily appears at first glance to be much more active in the clan and in good graces with the royal family than any one of BORA’s children (Gorfa, Rungu, and Mkuki). She seems to have made appearances much more frequently and displayed a higher level of boldness, both towards other hyenas and towards people. MAA’s newest cub, Tigerlily, seems on track to carry out a similar set of behaviors, though only time will tell if his behavioral trend continues into adulthood and is displayed in MAA’s future litters. BORA’s shaky start is apparent in her behavior at the den – during our period of study, she spent much less time than average (and than MAA) at her cub’s den. She also seemed to prefer nursing as far away as possible from the center of the den, and when multiple dens were active at once, preferred to keep her youngest, CALA, at the least crowded den. If this is a trend that extends back to her first litter, the cubs in question could end up with less time socializing with cohorts of the same age and fewer cubs with which to socialize, leading them to be less versed in hyena ways and ranks, and more likely to be loners in adulthood. But while most moms improve their technique with age, BORA seems to be exhibiting a reverse trend in her mothering success. Her first cubs have both survived to adulthood, albeit as spookier, less social individuals than their rank may permit. In last year’s litter, Mkuki’s sibling Jembe disappeared prematurely at less than 2 years of age. It seems that this year, BORA’s maternal instinct has failed her entirely, letting her latest cub CALA, around 6 months old when last seen, starve with little provocation. BORA herself appears to remain healthy, but over time had less and less of a desire to visit the den in which her cub dwelled, eventually ceasing altogether. What drives the difference in maternal instinct, especially in new moms, is thus far a mystery. But perhaps by observing and understanding moms like BORA, we can eventually puzzle it out.

Megabyte (BYTE)

BYTE, with BRET and LARI before they were separated
BYTE is another testament to the oddities displayed by new moms in the clan. On occasion, spotted hyena moms show odd behavior in the placement of one or both of their cubs at dens, which can show its face in several different ways. For example, if a mother has two cubs and feels she is unable to care for both, she will often abandon one at a den which is becoming inactive in favor of providing for the other (usually dominant) sibling. On rarer occasions, a mother who is usually less than social with her clanmates will raise a cub away from the den in relative isolation. This is usually detrimental to the development of the cub, since they learn their rank from interactions with their den-mates. BYTE’s latest litter is rare in that she appeared to pick both of the above options. For about half of BRET and LARI’s first five months of life, they were raised separately at two different den complexes. One interesting result of this behavior is that the dominant littermate remained (and in large part still remains) in question. On one hand BRET seemed to get the better of his brother in nursing in preferred position during the times when they were together. On the other, BYTE appeared to pay more attention to LARI and spend more time at LARI’s den during the times when we observed him, and thus grew to be the bigger littermate as a result. One could only guess as to the factors that affected BYTE’s decision making during this process. Perhaps it was pure confusion, owing to the fact that her first cub Rumaki was a singleton. Perhaps she found it overwhelming to deal with two cubs at a time. In any case, both cubs are alive and well and have been reunited at last. Only time will tell whether their period of separation will have an effect on their socialization, or whether BYTE’s odd denning behavior will become a trend.


Marten (MTN)

PC Olivia Spagnuolo
PC Olivia Spagnuolo
MTN, a resident of Serena’s South clan, is a great example of how the social behavior of cubs can be learned just as easily from den-mates as from mothers. While she often displays antisocial behavior and prefers to spend as much time away from the social atmosphere at the den as possible, her latest DAMA was an extremely emboldened cub who preferred nothing less than spending all his time romping around with his littermates. One could perhaps surmise that, in the absence of his mother’s influence, the extremely large cohort of cubs in South this past year (around 15 at its peak) could have played a larger role in his socialization. However, at the end of the day, his mother’s wishes trumped even the influence of his den-mates. With Marten spending larger and larger blocks of time away from the den, DAMA seemed to have little choice but to graduate early to spend time with his mom and get the nourishment he needed to grow to adulthood. Unfortunately, this event likely led to his premature disappearance from the clan. What is interesting about this event is that MTN is not a new mom at all, with DAMA having been part of her eighth litter of cubs. This truly seems to suggest a trend in behavior which has affected her mothering style. Unfortunately, in this case a lack of participation on the mother’s front has led to the survival of only 2/12 of her cubs, suggesting that this behavior is highly detrimental to the wellbeing of offspring. Whether she’s too set in her ways as an adult to change, or simply regards her own survival as being more important than that of her cubs remains to be seen.

Palazzo (PALA)

SAMI, with some den-mates
PC Olivia Spagnuolo
PALA, like BORA, is also a third time mom this year. However, she falls on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum in terms of attentiveness to her cub. She has a watchfulness for her latest SAMI which borders on possessiveness. Often, the majority of her time at the den is spent intervening in her cub’s shenanigans and carrying him back to a place of safety. While this may in the future discourage SAMI’s boldness, a trait he currently shows in abundance, it can have its merits too. She is willing to go to great lengths to maternally intervene with meddling subadults, individuals which may try to aggress on SAMI, and even fellow cubs who are playing a bit too rough. Check out the video below for a great example of this!

VC Olivia Spagnuolo

All moms are different, and all moms are wonderful! Happy Mother’s Day everyone!

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Least Lucky Warthog in the Mara

Today was a wet, gloomy morning in the Mara Triangle. The tall grass was still damp from the rain last night. The clouds hung heavy overhead. A lonely warthog stood in the sea of tall grass, quietly wandering about and grazing.

There was no wind, so the grass was still. A small patch of yellow grass began to shake and sway, but the warthog paid no mind.

Silently, a lioness crept through the grass with her body lowered. She quietly moved herself closer and closer to the lonely warthog, who happily munched on grass. Two other females were already in position, surrounding their oblivious target.

Three lionesses surround a grazing warthog. After only minutes of stalking the warthog,
two of the lionesses launch the ambush, chasing their prey into the jaws of the third lioness.

Three minutes after the last lioness got into position, she exploded out of the grass, racing towards the warthog. A second lioness joined her and, together, they chased the panicked warthog into the waiting jaws of the third lioness. All three lionesses converged on the warthog, which was still squealing and screaming furiously.

After a few seconds, the damp, heavy air fell silent again. It was a successful hunt.

The lioness who made the kill sports a tell-tale mask of blood.
Photo credit to Robyn L. Strong
 However, the warthog's final squeals had not gone unnoticed. Seconds after the females had completed a successful hunt, a spotted hyena loped onto the scene, followed by a black-backed jackal.

The male of the pride had heard the squeals too. He was not far away, and within a minute he emerged from a nearby patch of forest, racing across the savanna towards the three lionesses.

The male lion bursts out of the forest and races towards the kill.
Photo credit to Robyn L. Strong
The females hardly had a chance to feed on their hard-earned meal before the male bounded up to them.

The male wastes no time, bounding over the tall grass and leaping over the mounds of dirt.
Photo credit to Robyn L. Strong
The male immediately claimed possession of the warthog. The females didn't put up a fight.

The male quickly makes it clear that this warthog is his now.
The females decide to play it safe and let him have it.
Better luck next time, ladies.

The male lion lifted up the entire warthog and carried it away, leaving the hunters to go hungry.

The male carries the carcass away while the
females search for blood and scraps left behind.
The hyena and jackal were left with a tough decision at this point. Do they risk tangling with the male lion, or do they continue circling the females in the hopes that a scrap had been left behind?

The jackal stood up tall to peek over the tall grass, looking back and forth between the hungry lionesses and the big male lion. He was clearly conflicted. After some careful deliberation, he trotted along after the male lion.

The hyena chose to pester the females, hoping that they just might have a bite left over for him. Way to add insult to injury! The lionesses were in no mood to deal with him.

The grass is still wet from the rain last night, and the lioness loses her footing,
sliding across the ground as she tries to chase the hyena. That's embarrassing.

The females finally climbed on top of a mound to recover from the hunt and enjoy one another's company. Affectionately, they rubbed their heads together and licked the warthog's blood from each other's faces. This small taste of blood is all they had to show for their hard work today.

The forlorn hunters take solace in each other's company.
With their teamwork and skill, they won't go hungry for long.

Perhaps this overly-confident hyena should keep his distance from the hungry lionesses,
lest he take the place of the warthog.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Interspecies encounters

As we’ve seen in a lot of recent posts, hyenas don’t just keep to themselves. They’re quite bold and playful and often involve themselves in other animals’ business (even when they're not hunting or fighting with lions). See:

Python eating a hyena (poor guy!):

BSTI & ABAT playing with turtles:

Hyenas & Wild Dogs:

Hyenas & Elephants:

Some of the animals I’ve seen hyenas interacting with include honey badgers, hippos, topi, zebra, giraffe, and kori bustards.
Hyenas "playing" with honey badgers.

Very poor quality video of the honey badgers.

A subadult hyena learns that topi can be quite dangerous.

TRNI wondering what this strange large bird is (Kori Bustard).

Two subadults wondering if zebras make good friends (they don't). 

Hyenas harassing a hippo (generally too big and strong to kill).

A giraffe interrupts GEL's cognition trial. 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science