Friday, June 28, 2013

Pains, strains and automobiles: Welcome to field research in the Mara.

By Emily Thorne, IRES 2013

If you have ever had to pull to the side of the freeway at night, get down on your hands and knees, jack up your car and change a tire while trying to avoid being obliterated by passing semi-trucks, then you might be able to relate to my first day in the Mara. Only, instead of a freeway picture a dusty dirt road with grass as tall as your shoulders on either side. Instead of a fully functioning jack picture a broken jack and a few boulders. And instead of passing semi-trucks picture packed-to-the-brim tourist vehicles and add a less than happy herd of elephants separated from you by nothing more than a small patch of trees. Furthermore, imagine that this is not your first flat tire of the day. 

It isn’t that I didn’t believe them when they told me we would experience a lot of car troubles here, it’s more that I had no idea how great the definition of “a lot” really was. Properly running vehicles are essential to hyena research as well as life in the Mara. They are our lifelines to the world outside of camp, our only source of transportation to and from the field, and they keep us from getting killed on a daily basis. Without the protection of our vehicles we would be easy targets for lions, hyenas, elephants and various other creatures every time we leave camp. Fieldwork here without a reliable vehicle is impossible. This means our multitude of car troubles is not only inconvenient and frustrating (not to mention expensive) but also detrimental to our work. Since I have been in Kenya our poor cars (and poor crew!) have experienced three flat tires, broken brake lines, a broken brake booster, a cracked gearbox and an engine explosion. I have only been here for ten days.

We have three vehicles here at the Serena camp. It is a good thing we do too since only one or two of them ever seem to be drivable at any given time.  Field work in the Mara is just as demanding on the vehicles as it is on the researchers, or maybe even more so. All the roads are dirt roads and even the best of them require some skill to navigate. Our research requires us to utilize cut tracks through the plains and occasionally venture off-road. The tall grass we drive through provides great cover for animals such as hyenas, gazelles and jackals. Unfortunately, however, it also provides great cover for car-busting rocks, mud holes and termite mounds.

I have also noticed that Mother Nature takes no pity on car problems. A few days ago, just after leaving camp for the Serena South clan, Dave, Wes and I smelled something burning. Then we noticed smoke coming from one of the front wheels of the Land Cruiser. The brake had frozen up on us and we weren’t going anywhere. A storm was rolling in and we were several kilometers from camp. After trying to call the other researchers for help and finding that their cell phones were out of service, we waited for a tour vehicle to drive by. Finally, one found us and Wes hitched a ride back to camp to pick up our third car (which was thankfully working at the time) and a couple of mechanics from the nearby lodge. Dave and I waited with the car for what felt like an eternity. Actually, it was less than an hour, but there isn’t much to do when you are stuck out in the bush.

On the bright side, due to the storm rolling in and a fire burning somewhere to the south in Tanzania, we were able to watch the most incredible sunset I have ever seen. My hopes were high that the weather would hold out until the mechanics arrived and fixed the car, but of course that is not how it would play out.

It was pitch black out by the time Wes and the mechanics found us, and just as they pulled up the storm unleashed its fury. Lightning flashed, giving us momentary glimpses of the grassland around us but not of what dangers could be lurking nearby. Thunder rolled so loud that I could feel it in my chest. Rain poured down as if buckets of water were being thrown on us. Within minutes the road was soaking wet, the culverts on either side starting to flood. The mud was so slippery that the Hi-Lift jack the mechanics were using to lift the car kept sliding, causing it to spin. It all seemed simultaneously frightening and comical. As there was nothing I could do to help I sat in the other car with Wes and watched as Dave and the two mechanics did whatever they could to figure out how to fix the wheel.

The whole thing reminded me of a scene from the movie Jurassic Park. All we needed was for a T-Rex to pop up out of the bushes, although an angry buffalo or elephant would have been equally terrifying.  Eventually, the mechanics determined that the best course of action would be to remove the brakes entirely from that wheel, drive back to camp, and fix it later. I think Dave noticed I was a bit skeptical about the removing-of-the-brakes idea because he told me not to worry, that the car still had three left. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe.

It wasn’t until after we made it safely back to camp and I excitedly regaled our adventure to the others who responded with an “oh no, not again” instead of my expected “wow, that’s incredible!” that I realized events like this are all too common here in the Mara. As exciting as this evening was, I am hoping that future car troubles will be kept to a minimum so that my short stay here in Serena will consist of exciting research experiences, incredible animal adventures, and lots of fun stories to tell. Stories that don’t involve flat tires and busted brakes that is.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Introducing some new bloggers - the IRES 2013 students

This is Stephanie Dloniak, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Zoology at MSU, Hyena Project alumnus, and wildlife biologist and science writer based in Kenya.

This summer we have several IRES students in the Mara. IRES is the acronym for the program titled “International Research Experience for Students,” which is funded through a grant to Dr. Holekamp from the National Science Foundation. Through this program, a number of undergraduate students are chosen to travel to our field site in Kenya and engage in research for about 2 months. Students assist with specific projects led by current graduate students. In addition, they learn how to do anything and everything that needs done on a long-term project on the behavioral ecology of a large carnivore - from identifying individual hyenas to assisting with field experiments to changing tires on the research vehicles.

This is the third year that the Holekamp lab has hosted IRES students, and for the first time we are incorporating a significant writing component in the experience. The students are participating in technical writing activities as well as trying their hands at science writing for a lay audience. For the latter task, some of the students will contribute several blog posts here.

Over the next two months, we are pleased to bring you posts from the following IRES students:

Moira Donovan is originally from Worthington, Ohio. She is an Anthropology major and a junior at Grinnell College in Iowa. Moira says that she applied to the IRES program because she “did a Mentored Advanced Project on captive Japanese macaque social behavior last year and realized her love for animal research.” She was in southern India when she applied for the program and knew she wanted to travel more; she thinks the IRES program incorporates perfectly her dual interests in animal social behavior and travel.

Benjamin Hochfelder
 hails from Omaha, Nebraska, and is currently a junior at the University of Nabraska at Omaha, majoring in Neuroscience. 
Ben’s application to the IRES program was motivated by his “desire to experience the pursuit of science from the perspective of both controlled laboratory experiments and ecologically relevant field work.” He had also read a number of the papers produced by the Holekamp lab and had become fascinated by the spotted hyena as a model organism.

Emily Thorne is from Rancho Cucamonga, California, and is a senior at Humboldt State University (CA). She is majoring in Wildlife Biology (with a concentration in Conservation and Applied Vertebrate Ecology) and minoring in Applied Statistics. Emily applied for the IRES program because she is interested in anthropogenic effects on wildlife behavior and how it relates to wildlife conservation. “The IRES program seemed to fit perfectly with my goal of becoming a wildlife conservation researcher and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to apply for this once in a lifetime experience.”

Stay tuned for the first IRES post tomorrow - Emily will tell you about her first few days here in “Pains, strains, and automobiles: Welcome to field research in the Mara.”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Can a hyena grieve?

Emma nurses Rama while Tinsel stands nearby. Photo credit to Julie Turner. 

Emma is behaving like a mother hyena in mourning. One may say I am anthropomorphizing (and it is often very hard not to do so while living in the field with these hyenas!) but we have not seen her cub Dr. Pepper in over a month. Emma has been frequenting the den and there is a restless motion in her gait as she sniffs each cub that comes up to greet her with uncertain confusion. The other cubs at the den must smell her milk because they have been trying to nurse from her and it is only with great reluctance that she pulls away. It is not all that unusual that we have not seen Dr. Pepper in over a month because he is at the age will he will start making longer and longer forays away from the den but Emma’s recent behavior is not only greatly worrying but also heartbreaking.

Allonursing (nursing offspring that is not one’s own) occurs in many species of animal but typically only between kin- such as a mother nursing her daughter’s cub or a sister nursing a sister’s cub. A few nights ago Rama was the center of Emma’s attention; Emma has always been a very good mother and for some reason Emma had latched on to this little cub. Rama is much younger than her own Dr. Pepper at around 6 months of age (Dr. Pepper would be around 9 months) and Emma was licking and grooming Rama while Rama nursed from her mother Tinsel.

When Tinsel stood up Rama wandered over to Emma who licked at Rama, paused, and then lay down with a sigh and let Rama begin nursing from her. Emma and Tinsel are unrelated as far as we know so Emma had no relationship to little Rama but it seems that the mothering instinct was so strong in Emma that with her own cub missing she accepted Rama as a temporary replacement. In spotted hyenas allonursing is very rarely observed and seeing this behavior in Emma was extremely unusual because it would not seem to be adaptive.

There is some growing evidence that animals do experience emotions like grief, but it may never be possible to know if they feel emotions the way we do. Clearly, the loss of a cub can have very strong effects on the behavior of a hyena and I think it would be naïve to claim that animals like hyenas cannot feel at least some level of emotional pain.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Battle for the Elephant Carcass

A lot of the time, we barely see our hyenas. On the Serena side especially, there’s tall grass that makes it very hard to find them, and when we do, we usually only see a few at a time. However, occasionally we stumble upon crazy things. And here comes the magic of the GPS collars that we now have on some of the hyenas; we sometimes see areas where their GPS points converge. We hadn’t been seeing the hyenas in our North clan much, and the ones we were seeing looked a little beat up. This piqued our curiosity at camp, and we found that their GPS points were clustering in an area near the border of their territory that we rarely go to. So, we decided to go there one morning.

Driving to the area of the GPS points, we start to smell the pungent odors of hyena vomit, poop, and paste. The hyenas had clearly been there recently. As we are being deafened by the beeps indicating we were close to one of the hyenas with a GPS collar, we drove into a thicket of bushes and finally found the female we were tracking. As we start to look around the bushy area we are in, we see one head, then another and another emerge from the bushes, and we realize that nearly the entire clan must be here since we see about twenty hyenas appear. All of the sudden, everyone starts to move forward, so we follow. While we are frantically trying to identify everyone we happened across, a group of about ten hyenas charge through the bushes toward us and our North Clan hyenas. Looking around wondering what on earth is happening, we realize that we don’t recognize any of the incoming hyenas who made all of the ones we were working on identifying flee.

The charging hyenas go back the way they came, and the North clan starts moving forward again. This time, they move further forward; we emerge from the bushy thicket into an open area and see a mountain covered in vultures and hyenas that we don’t recognize. We quickly realize that we are seeing two clans, Oloololo and North, fighting over a relatively new elephant carcass.


North (right) approaching the elephant carcass surrounded by vultures and Oloololo hyenas

Initially the two clans appear to have nearly equal numbers. The Oloololo clan is in control of the carcass, and the North keeps trying to move forward to take the carcass, but Oloololos chase them back into the bushes at each attempt.


North approaches and gets chased back into the bushes

Slowly, some of the Oloololos get their fill and start to wander off, decreasing their numbers. The North hyenas become more bold, getting closer to the carcass with each attempt before being chased off. Finally, they use their full force to chase off the remaining Oloololo hyenas and take control of the carcass.


North hyenas on the carcass with Oloololos off to the left

The North clan ate their fill that morning. Every time we returned to the carcass after that, the Oloololo hyenas had the carcass while some of the North clan was on the fringe. It seems that Oloololo won the war, but we saw an exciting battle along the way. It was also amazing to see the decay of the carcass over the next couple days.


Day1, day 2, day 3

Sometimes things can be really exciting here!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Happy Zebra clan takes down a buffalo calf.

Saw my first hunt and kill a few nights ago and it was incredible! We (a grad student, IRES undergrad student, and I) left camp at 5 just hoping to find a hyena that we could do a research trial with. However, the game plan changed quick when we had a hyena come loping past us fast, cross the road in a blink and continue on. Hoping to get an ID shot and see where he was heading in such a rush I turned off-road and revved up to 25 kilometer per hour to follow him. Lucky for me this area was very flat with short grass and no rocks so we were able to keep after this hyena who was flying to the west. He kept up the pace and we soon saw another hyena loping in the same direction on the opposite hill. A few minutes later two more appeared from other directions. Now it was getting exciting!

With at least 6 hyenas visible all heading towards one spot we hurried along until it started getting rocky. Forced to go down into first gear I maneuvered the toyota through the flat patches until the rocks disappeared, but now the grass was long and obstructing our visibility. Luckily (notice how many luckily’s there are in this post?) the GPS indicated that Sneaky crossing was about 200m northwest of us. A crossing meant that someone had driven over here before and found a good way across the lugga that separated us from the opposite hill where most of our lopers were. So I made my way over to Sneaky crossing and thought it was soggy it didn’t have any ruts or visible obstructions, so I backed up, put the car in 4 and revved across it safely. 

Now we could see a massive herd of buffalo at the top of this hill (at least 200 individuals). We counted about ten hyenas who had a group of maybe 7 adult buffalo and 1 calf separated off from the rest of the herd. We got as close as we dared (the buffalo were riled up) and started filming. A hunt in process! A group that fluctuated between 3 and 5 hyenas were test chasing this small group of buffalo and chasing some of the adults. We were wondering why this small group didn't go back and join the main group and it wasn't until later on after analyzing the video that we learned that the hyenas had already injured a young calf before we arrived that was unable to get up. It only gained its feet for a few minutes before it collapsed back down into the grass.

Its mother was trying to defend it and we kept confusing the injured calf with the uninjured calf. The hyenas sparred with the buffalo for fifteen minutes, taunting and teasing the adults while trying to draw them away from the injured calf. Eventually all but the mother had rejoined the main herd. The mother seemed to know that she had already lost her calf but every time the hyenas started to dive in on it she would try to drive them off again. Finally, long after we could see any movement from the little calf, she gave up and rejoined the main herd. Almost instantly the hyenas converged on the calf, which if it was not dead already, was dead very shortly.

The speed with which the seven hyenas on the calf were drenched in blood was astonishing. Two subs were trying to get in there but we repeatedly aggressed on while males and low-rankers hung out around the periphery waiting for scraps. The grass was not too bad and we had a good view. We were able to ID some of the hyenas while they ate but with the blood soaking everyone from the shoulders up it was hard to pick out individuals and only later using the video did we ID all the hyenas present. Eventually the subs split the carcass and there were more furious growls and bristling tails and snaps of aggression. The matriarch Pike and her daughters Boom, Arbalet and Eremet controlled the kill along with a few other high ranking females and their subadult cubs while the immigrant males and low-ranking subdaults hovered on the edge.

A massive thunderstorm was building behind us and all the hyenas were on edge, trying to eat as much as possible before any other predators (namely lions) could show up and take the kill. The storm was a very ominous orange/brown color at one point and you could see lightning flashing in the distance. The buffalo herd disappeared into the fading light while the hyenas' fur became redder and their bellies became bloated. Eventually the rain started splattering down and we could hear the hyenas were alarm rumbling between rumbles of thunder. Likely some of the alarm rumbles were false alarms so that the subs and low-rankers could steal a bite, but everyone looked nervous. 

Within an hour the carcass was reduced to just a few spread out pieces that various animals were munching on. This was probably the most amazing thing I have ever seen, the bright red of the blood was stunning and stark and the air of energy and excitement was palpable. Darkness and rain forced us to leave and by then almost everything had been devoured. This was a night to remember.

It is a common misperception that hyenas are solely scavengers, stealing food from lions and other predators. However, as we could see that night hyenas are very efficient hunters and will hunt alone or in groups. They can quickly reduce a carcass into nothing but bits of bones in a very short time period. A hunt and kill is not something one gets to see to often and we were very lucky to have Saw, an adult female hyena, cross our path early on and lead us to witness this amazing event.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hyenas play rough!

Clay, the small cub in this video, is the little princess of the Happy Zebra clan. The two hyenas play-biting her are her older sisters Arbalet and Eremet and her mom Pike is the hyena laying down in front of her. Pike was no help to Clay while her older sisters ganged up on her! Clay is a somewhat spoiled little cub so it was cute to see her sisters toying with her.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science