Monday, October 26, 2015

The Pets We Can't Pet

In his memoir, Whatever You Do, Don’t Run, Botswana safari guide Peter Allison tells the story of Badge, a honey badger that adopted Allison’s camp as its home and became the unofficial camp “pet.” Despite their arguably cute, snub-nosed faces and a name that implies a sweet demeanor, honey badgers are anything but. Armed with long, sharp claws they can cause serious injury and are scared of nothing. They earn their namesake by plunging head first into beehives to feed on fresh honey, ignoring the swarming, stinging bees. They also fight cobras – and win.  
So imagine Allison’s shock when one night, sitting at the dining table with the camp’s guests, when Badge decided to introduce himself by jumping up in the middle of the table, helping himself to leftovers. After that night, Badge was a regular in camp and while the staff maintained a healthy and necessary fear of him, they grew quite fond of his presence.
I couldn’t help but relate to this story when I read it; we too have our own version of camp “pets” that, like Badge, bring comic relief to our daily routines.

In Serena, our most frequent visitors here are dwarf mongooses. They usually show up all at once, announcing their arrival with chirps and squeaks, barreling down the path in a blur of orange fur. Scurrying and chattering, they search the underbrush for insects; sometimes the braver ones will risk a few steps up onto our tarp before realizing we’re there and make a hasty retreat. They have a den by our choo as well, so they sometimes keep us company while we’re taking care of business (which will never cease to amuse me).

We also have resident warthogs who, despite their potential to be quite dangerous, are surprisingly docile and barely give us notice, completely absorbed in their grazing when we walk past. Tuftless, a warthog that has lost the fluffy end of his tail, visits camp quite often and is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

The most recent addition to our animal friends is Bartok, a leaf-nosed bat, who was discovered hanging upside-down above our lab tent one day.

Birds also like to hang around, mostly a group of noisy arrow-marked babblers, who hop boisterously across our floor tarp. They also seem to enjoy serenading us with their  raspy “kwhaa kwhaa” chorus; let’s just say they could use some singing lessons. My favorite of the group is Rumpy – a babbler missing his entire tail but still seems to fly just fine. 

At night, we often have slightly larger, more “interesting” visitors. Elephants like to graze in the bordering woods and will sometimes wander into camp. Now I love elephants and everything about them. But when a 1-ton animal is trumpeting and breaking branches close enough to your tent that you can hear them swallow with only a sheet of canvas as protection at 2AM, you wake up pretty fast. In the morning, we emerge from our tents to find tree branches scattered all over camp, evidence of the pachyderms’ overnight feast.
            Hippos also love to graze here at night, making their presence known with what sounds just like helicopter rotors: defecating while flinging their tails so that poop flies in various directions. The good news is that they favor the opposite side of camp from my tent (sorry Erin!).

            We all miss the companionship of the furry friends we left behind at home, so seeing familiar faces in camp throughout the day brings an element of comfort and homeyness to life here. While I never expected to share my front “lawn” with a warthog, I’m so glad I do and have grown increasingly fond of our numerous FisiCamp mascots. We may not have a “pet” honey badger, but I think we’re all quite ok with that!

Current RA pets!
Top row, left to right: Luke, Nola, Rocky, Jax
Bottom row: Oreo ("the amazing furious chihuahua"), Roscoe, Binx, Sparkie

Referenced book: Allison, P. (2008). Whatever you do, don’t run: True tales of a Botswana safari guide. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Photos: Personal photos from Emily Ronis, Ciara S.G. Main, Jared Grimmer, Spencer Freeman, and Erin Person (thanks guys!)



Thursday, October 22, 2015

Carnivores Ft. Black-Backed Jackals

          As a Research Assistant, one of my daily responsibilities while out on an observation session is to record carnivore data. This means that whenever we find a carnivore in the territories that we study, we document where and when we saw that specific species. This data allows us to see what other carnivores the spotted hyena is living around and to record any interactions between them. I’ve been here four months now and the carnivores I’ve seen thus far are servals, lions, cheetahs, leopards, banded mongooses, dwarf mongooses, white-tailed mongooses and side-striped jackals. The most common carnivore spotted in Talek however, is undeniably the black-backed jackal.

          The black-backed jackal is a sleek, small canine who displays a distinct dark back coat, pointed ears, and a bushy tail. I think they closely resembles fox species. What has been striking in the behavior of the black-baked jackal is the observable, strict monogamous bond between pairs and their intense territorial defense strategies. We often find ourselves in what we think are black-backed jackal territories and spot a female, knowing too well that the male is most likely nearby. We often document black-backed jackals in adult pairs, but have had numerous observations of pups as well. A female will have litters of 3-4 and interestingly, the assistance of helpers, or older offspring, has been found to have a direct influence on pup survival. Not only do helpers contribute their regurgitations to lactating mothers and their pups, but they spend the majority of their time guarding the den when the mother and father are away.

          If necessary, a helper will warn the cubs to seek the den’s refuge by barking or rumble-growling. If a hyena is the danger, adults will drive them away by nipping at their haunches. Having witnessed this in the field, the ridiculously quick nipping from the jackal is countered by a hyena’s rapid snap. Together, the interactions between the species form this fluid dance-like movement between the two with the occasional squeal and bark throughout. It's quite the sight! One of our hyenas, Toad, a subadult female, discovered a black-backed jackal den and for weeks aggravated the resident jackals. But to our enjoyment, this allowed us to observe jackal pups and their parents respond to a hyena’s presence. Having to record where the individuals are, we stopped and watched the pups explore, play, and socialize outside the den on numerous occasions before they moved.

          The black-backed jackal is a regular at a carcass session with hyenas. When together at a carcass, the hyenas are more often than not quite tolerable of a jackal's presence, within reason of course. It’s been interesting to watch certain hyenas respond more aggressively to a jackal during a feeding than others, who seem to not mind at all. The civil hyena-jackal relationship is often tested when a jackal will dart in with remarkable boldness to steal a scrap, often resulting in a lunge or a snap from the hyenas feeding. That said, this never stops the black-backed jackals from persisting in their efforts for a tid-bit or two of a fresh wildebeest, zebra, or cow. When not mooching off of a hyena kill, the black-backed jackal is certainly an efficient predator, and of young Thompson’s gazelle fawns in particular.

          As parents, a mother and father display exceptional rearing strategies. Denning in holes that have been dug by other species like the warthog, the mother will spend nearly all of her time in the pups’ early weeks of life keeping them warm. She is then provisioned by a helper or the father with food to sustain her and the young. As the pups age, the family may move dens multiple times. By around the middle of the third month, the pups will begin sleeping outside of the den and following their parents on foraging missions. With continued growth they start to independently hunt and explore further from the den and by eight months they will have left their natal territory. 

            Personally, I am always thrilled at a sighting of a black-backed jackal. Their swift nature, unyielding gusto in fighting off a hyena from a den, attempts to snatch a bite or two off a carcass, and all of their other behavioral quirks make them a fascinating organism to observe here in the Mara.
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Personal Photos of Jared P. Grimmer 
     Source: Estes, Richard Despard: Behavior Guide to African Mammals. 1991

Monday, October 19, 2015

"It always rains when..."

Out in the bush, there is a distinct lack of meteorology happening. We can tell you the high and low temperature as well as the rainfall in camp for nearly every single day of the past 27 years we’ve been in the Mara…but when you ask about looking into the future, there are few resources for getting a firm handle on that.

So what’s someone to do when you’re trying to anticipate which clothes to wear, or whether to bring your rain boots and coat on observations, just in case you get stuck this time and need to stand for hours digging the car out of mud?

Well, as in many situations we face in the field, the answer has become, “Figure out how to do it yourself!”

Serena camp has recently begun using the following metric: “It always rains when Emily leaves her towel out to dry overnight.”

Philomen (who works at Serena camp) has his own: “It always rains on the full moon.”

In the year I was in the field, I developed my own method. There are three ingredients – as they begin to add up, you know it’s coming; when you have all three, you start bringing your rain boots into the car every time you drive out of camp.

1.     Hotter than normal days. We’re talking 30+ degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit for all those not inclined towards metric thinking)

2.     Large, fluffy, white clouds gathering in the afternoon on the north-east horizon. 
3.     Siafu. All over. These army ants carve ant-sized trenches in the ground as they march their long lines through camp. (They even build tunnels with their bodies!) We could swear they congregate around water sources, and seem to appear right before rain. 

So who needs meteorologists when you can plainly see when Emily leaves her towel out to dry, or can even better – when you know exactly when the next full moon is? Or what about those clouds and temperature and ants…that has to be accurate, right? What happens then when a full moon doesn’t bring rain, or a hot day with fluffy clouds and a line of ants doesn’t equate to a downpour in the next 24-hours? Well…. “that was an exception”, right?

Because do I actually have the data to show you that it rained significantly more often when my three ingredients came together than when they didn’t? Can I tell you the parameters of what constituted as ‘hot’ or the time at which the clouds began to gather, or the number of siafu considered ‘all over’? (Trust me, it doesn’t take many to feel that way.) Have we presented any alternative hypotheses? (Let’s all agree that Emily’s towel doesn’t warrant an alternative hypothesis).

I must say, I would have to answer ‘no’ to all of these; as sure as I am that it ‘always’ rains when those three factors occur simultaneously.

What’s going on then? Why are we so sure of our predictive powers?

It’s called ‘confirmation bias’, “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions”, according to ScienceDaily. It’s all too easy to fall prey to this attractive mental teaser. It’s amazing how many pieces seem to fall into place or how often you experience a certain thing because you were made aware of it. But this is one of the greatest assets of science – we uphold strict standards of hypothesizing, designing solid experiments, running them over and over again to achieve a high enough sample size that is representative of the whole.

In the field, it’s particularly important that we all remain conscious of this – when you spend 365 nearly consecutive days in the Mara, when the changing of the landscape and wildlife is so readily apparent each day, you start to think you understand all the patterns.

For our group, it’s a valuable reason we tell stories of past years, to remind ourselves how different each of the years can be, that our 1/27th of the field life of the project is still relatively small. To avoid confirmation bias, we have to keep our personal interpretation and expectation out of the equation, and diligently gather data every day following the procedures that have been in place across time.

Hyena research involves great sunrises and sunsets, pummeling rainstorms, and adorable cubs; however, those adorable cubs are able to enter our long-term research picture because of these protocols that help us avoid bias in our data.

I confess: even knowing this, I still pay attention to temperature, clouds, and ants. It has led to having my boots in the car on far more days than are needed…but I’ve rarely been caught without them at least! 

Posted by Hadley Couraud

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Mother's Love

In the world of a spotted hyena, family bonds are important. And no bond is more important than the one between a mother and her children.

Angie and her cub Winchester

Clovis and her cub Wasabi

From the moment they’re born to about 14 months of age, hyena cubs depend completely on their mothers for food and protection. Even after they are weaned, young hyenas may rely on Mom for several more years to help them stake a claim on carcasses. Hyenas don’t fully develop the jaws that give them their famous bone-crushing strength until they’re 2 years old. A 2009 paper from our project even hypothesized that spotted hyenas may have developed female dominance for this very reason. Unable to defend themselves at a fresh kill or to crack open the bones of an abandoned carcass, a weaned adolescent hyena might never get a meal without a protective mom to step in. Essentially, female hyenas evolved to be bigger and meaner in order to give their kids more of a fighting chance (Watts et al., 2009).

Muon with her cub Killer Queen.

Snapper with one of her cubs (either Martini or Julep. It's hard to tell when they're upside-down!)
And boy, do those mothers fight. Some of the most intense aggressions we see occur when a mother thinks her cub has been threatened. The sound of a cub in distress is certain to bring Mama running from the other side of the den, ready to take a chunk out of whoever looks guilty – even if they weren’t the one to attack the cub! In defense of her child, I guess mothers bite first and ask questions later.
TRex grooming her cub Where's the Goat. 
It’s a rough world out there for a baby hyena, so it’s a good thing they have such fierce protectors on their side. Here’s to you, hyena moms!

Pike (the collared female) with her numerous offspring (Lance, Morningstar, Claymore and Arbaletta) and grand-offspring (Recluse and Tarantula). Nice family photo, guys!

Work Cited:

Watts, H. E., Tanner, J. B., Lundrigan, B. L., & Holekamp, K. E. (2009). Post-weaning maternal effects and the evolution of female dominance in the spotted hyena. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276(1665), 2291–2298.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Fast Times at Meatloaf Den

Sometimes, things in Fisi Camp can feel pretty routine. We go to the dens for observation, and we see the same general group of hyenas hanging out at the den. For the most part, the dens will stay in the same spot for long periods of time, so we’ll spend most of our time in one small part of the territory.

Occasionally, though, the dens move. Sometimes when this happens, we find new cubs, and even new moms! This is what happened recently in Happy Zebra territory. The majority of the hyenas in this clan have been spending most of their time at the same den since before I arrived in January. Last week, the den became vacant. Finally, an excuse to explore!

Only a few days went by before we were lucky enough to find the new den, all the way on the other side of the territory near the border that the Happy Zebra clan shares with the North clan. When we arrived, the den was hopping. We found all of the cubs that we already knew about, most of their mothers, several of their sub-adult siblings and even some nervous immigrant males. Welcome to Meatloaf Den!

Rocky Horror, the preferred hangout near Meatloaf Den.
Photo by: Erin Person

And, with the new den came the best surprise of all: New cubs and a brand new mom! Sawtooth, one of the matriarch's older sisters, just had a new litter of two cubs. Her lineage is imaginary lands, so let me introduce you to Ember and Sparks:

Photo by: Erin Person


Muon, our youngest adult female in the Happy Zebra clan just had her first litter! Since Muon has never had cubs before, we had the pleasure of picking a lineage for her, and we settled on Queen songs. Welcome to the world, Killer Queen!

Killer Queen

With new cubs, a new mom, and a new part of the territory to hang out in, it looks like the Happy Zebra clan will be exciting once again!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Shake them Sexy Tail Feathers

Whoooah! I screamed, as this little ball of fluff dove in catching a buzzing, honeybee right above my head. I am amazed by a lot of things, but he was absolutely beautiful. He is an African Paradise Flycatcher. His body length runs about 50cm, but that does not include his long “sexy” tail feathers that stretch an additional 100cm. He is deep sea blue and toasty brown in color and has a small crest on his head. His stamina is impressive. And his ability to catch flying insects in midair is breathtaking. I ask myself, how can this little bird be so swift, yet so conspicuous? And doesn’t his long tail feathers get in the way when he is swooping in to catch a flying critter?

I named him, PeeWee.

Why does PeeWee have such long tail feathers?

The answer is Sexual Selection.

Sexual selection is both intrasexual selection which involves competition between the same sex, (i.e. the power to conquer other males in combat) and intersexual selection which is mate choice (i.e. the power to charm the opposite sex) (Darwin, 1859)

For example, intersexual competition can be seen between two male elephant seals physically fighting for access to a brood of females on the beach. But it can also act more subtly—or at least less violently—through male ornamentation to attract potential mates in many bird species, such as the elaborate feathers of a peacock.

For our friend PeeWee here, the length of his tail feathers may signal to rival males that he is vigorous, so that he can establish a territory (intrasexual) but the tail feathers may also signal to the female that he would make an excellent mate (intersexual).

Meet Margaery (below)

She is identical in size and color, but without the long feathers.
I think she likes him because she has been hanging out here for quite some time.

Why does the Margaery choose PeeWee over the other male Flycatchers?

In many animal species, females use male signals to choose their mates. These signals are often times visual—like bright colors or dances, or vocal—like elaborate songs. There are three main ways by which females can benefit by choosing their mates based on these signals: Direct Benefit, Good Genes and Sexy Sons (Runaway Selection).

Females may gain direct benefits when male signals honestly indicate something about the male that will directly benefit her. For example, male lions with larger manes, may tell the lioness that he can protect and occupy a larger territory than males with smaller manes. Meaning, she will be protected from other males, as well as have a lot of space to access important resources. Direct benefits are also very important for many bird species; especially those species where males directly contribute parental care to their offspring. However, in many other species of birds, males only contribute through mating by passing on their genes to their offspring.

Females might also gain good genes benefits if traits in males are connected to heritable (genetic) characteristics. These heritable traits say something about a male’s quality as a mate and if the male is chosen it means his good genes will be passed on to her offspring. This process is seen in many lekking bird species (i.e The Greater Sage grouse) because in these types of systems, the males do not provide any parental care (direct benefit to the female), but only pass on their genes to her offspring.

Females may also gain Sexy Sons benefits, by Fisherian Runaway Selection. This hypothesis states that males can have a sexy trait that does not provide any information about his quality as a mate or does not provide any direct benefit to the female. However, this sexy trait is still favored, because if a female mates with a male that has this sexy trait, her sons will also have this sexy trait. Although this process may sound very similar to the Good Genes hypothesis, the difference is that the trait of choice does not tell the female how good he is as a mate (no measurement of quality), but she only likes it because it makes him sexier than any other male.

For example, let’s say that, PeeWee is the only male African Paradise Flycatcher in all of the Maasai Mara with long sexy extravagant tail feathers. And let’s say that every single female flycatchers in the Mara loved long tail feathers. When the time comes he will court his suiters and because he is the only male with a lusciously long tail the females will choose him over the rest.

This means that PeeWee’s sons will inherit the genes for his sexy tail feathers, and they will be carriers for their mother’s choosy genes (the preference gene is the gene that “told” the females to pick PeeWee and his sexy tail feathers I the first place.) These sexy sons will mate more often (owing to their sexiness), making lots of sexy sons and choosy daughters. Over time, there will be a very large population of flycatcher males with long sexy tail feathers and flycatcher females to only want to pick these male. Hence the term runaway selection; the trait continues to get picked time and time again over many generations all because the females thought PeeWee was the sexiest bird in the Mara.

Regardless of which type of sexual selection has caused the evolution of PeeWee’s sexy tail feathers, it seems to be working out well for him. Margaery and PeeWee seem to be hitting it off quite nicely. And hopefully, in due time, we will get to see PeeWee’s sexy sons winning over the ladies.

Darwin, Charles. Origin of Species (1859)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Ready or not, here we come!...well, maybe not.

Remember playing hide-and-seek as a kid? The countdown from ten while everyone else ran off to find the perfect hiding place: the dark corner of the hall closet, the heavy curtains in Dad’s office, or the tight space under your brother’s bed. Then came the anticipation, searching every corner for signs of disturbance: a door not fully closed, an upturned rug, maybe even a whispered “shhhh, she’ll find us”... Until finally, the sweet reward of discovering a friend with a sudden “ha! found you!” as they reluctantly untangle themselves from the closet’s winter coats, refusing to believe their hiding space had been uncovered.

Well, out here in Serena, the South Clan hyenas also love to play hide-and-seek. A lot. You would think because we can track, we have an unfair advantage: anytime we drive near collared hyenas, our receiver picks up the collar’s radio signals and we can (in theory) follow that signal straight to the hyena. Easy, right?

Not exactly. We might have technology on our side, but the collared South hyenas have a few tricks up their sleeves, like:

rock fields,


or bushes.

Essentially, those tricky hyenas like to hide in all of the places we can’t get to safely. In recent weeks, tracking in South has been one big, unfruitful game of hide-and-seek. We’ll pick up a signal for say, Taj Mahal (a very enthusiastic hider) and start to track, driving in the direction of the strongest signal. It grows louder as we close in, and that familiar anticipation flickers in our stomachs: we’re on the verge of discovering our hyena! We get closer, and closer, and then...

Bushes. We’re staring at thick, impassable bushes and no hyena. The signal is blaring in the receiver’s headphones, as if to say, “She’s here! She’s right here! Why can’t you find her?” Our excitement levels drop immediately to zero when we realize we can’t follow the trail any further. Taj Mahal has bested us and won this round (we often imagine her snickering just beyond the border of the bushes). We acknowledge defeat, stating “no vis” into our recorders, and carry on.

The collared hyenas in South win most rounds of hide-and-seek, whether using bushes, rock fields, or culverts to their advantage. But recently, we have claimed a few victories, each with a “ha, found you!”, a hyena sighting, and the sweet feeling of triumph. Much like the discovered friend in the closet, skulking over his defeat, our hyena doesn’t usually stick around long enough for us to revel in the win.
Marten, just overjoyed we'd found her.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science