Monday, March 28, 2016

Hyena fur "splot"?

          When it comes to an observation session, one of our top priorities is identification. Sure, we can observe and record all of the behavior we want, but without knowing who an individual is or with whom they are interacting, then the data we’re collecting isn’t nearly as telling as it could be. Here in Talek, with our study clan of roughly 140 hyenas (& counting!), identifying individuals from one another can be quite the task at first. In fact, it took me about 6 months to feel comfortable with identification. That said, I’m quick to snap photos of any hyena I hesitate to identify with 100% confidence at first glance, so that later I can verify what hyenas I was observing with our photo books, or as we like to call them, "Hyena Bibles". 
            During a session if we can’t identify a hyena we’ll give him or her a temporary name, like “Blossom” or “Muddy Butt” or “Gouda” for example. That way, we can track the hyena throughout the session and not lose any data. Often times the hyenas indulge in a mud bath and cake themselves in dirt, making it impossible to get an identity. As frustrating as this can be, this is when using ear damage (like notches or slits or a missing ear), or any visible spots on the legs or rump can be vital to nabbing the identity. So it truly is pertinent that we know not only body spots but also leg, butt, and shoulder spots in the frequent case that is all we can see.
            Ideally, a hyena will stand still just long enough for us to get a clear look at their sides. For some, one side is more identifiable than the other. I’ve found that what I tend to see in an individual’s spots, or what I use to identify an individual, can be quite different than what another researcher uses. I’ve often found myself thinking that looking at the spots is comparable to a psychological inkblot test, joking that what we see differently in the spots is indicative of some aspect of ourselves and subconscious. Thus, I’ve dubbed the process of identifying individuals as the hyena fur “splot” (Get it? Spot + Blot = Splot… No? I tried..) test, where each of us as a researcher sees varying images within a hyena’s spots. It all started last June when I was first beginning the process of learning the hyenas by their unique spot patterns. Buenos Aires (BUAR), the matriarch of the clan, had this spot pattern on her left side that screamed "piece of toast and jam" whenever I saw her. Since then I've been seeing images (of mostly food items) in all of the hyenas... 
             Here are some ID photos of some of our hyenas to show you just what I mean. At the end of the post I’ll place the same photos with the image outlined so you can see what I see… or not…

             How about Umbreon (UMBR)… with her I’ve always seen what I consider to be the face of a clown… too farfetched? I identify her every time at a glance with this and the thought of cotton candy and circus peanuts.

            There’s Carter (CART) with her giant ice cream cone that makes us all instantly crave anything cold…

             Chicos (CHCO) and her undeniable smiling face... or what I think of as a robot... 

            Fairy Tale (FAY) and her obvious “T”…

            Helios (HEL) with her unmistakable shoulders, her right with a butterfly...
and her left with a pair of seagulls…

And what about with cubs, you may ask? Take Joule (JOUL) for instance. From the moment her first spots started to show I've always been able to see a baseball...

            So… do you see what we see? Perhaps I sound a bit zany, but when you’re trying to keep this many individuals straight, you use what you can, and sometimes the spots just speak for themselves, or most of the time I think they reveal that I’m craving some type of food… As I was saying before, we absolutely need to know who an individual is for the sake of the data. That just so happens to mean that I use abstract imagery in order to make identification that much simpler. Maybe I’ve been in the Mara for too long, or maybe my imagination has made its way too far into our field research… but whatever the case may be, the hyena fur “splot” test has transformed the seemingly daunting task of identification into a pleasing psychological exercise… at least for me anyways! Check below to see the images outlined: 
Umbreon: Do you see the clown now?
Carter: "You scream, we scream, we all scream for ice cream!" The spots certainly are..

Chicos: Mr. Roboto? 

Fairy Tale: She was easy, right? 
Helios: Her butterfly always reminds me of my undying love of insects.
Helios: Sporting a pair of seagulls in flight, she's never mistaken. 
 Joule: She's certainly ready for baseball season! 
Have any questions about how we identify hyenas in the field?
Don't hesitate to ask! 


Friday, March 25, 2016


It was a regular morning obs. 
Me, myself and KBY.
The den was quiet – No hyenas vis. The sun rose and with it the sweltering heat.

I decided to do a sit and wait obs, which involved going to numerous locations where you knew the hyenas were then you sit and wait.

I had found FFL and KHTM. 
No one else.

As my morning obs continued I found myself going to old hyena hang out spots, hoping that one might pop up. But each and every session I would record:

0654 :No hyenas visible

0716: No hyenas vis

And 0733: No hyenas vis

Everyone was definitely oos (out of sight) today. But I chugged along.

And as I chugged I witnessed a beast thrashing in the bush!
At first I thought it was an ostrich having a tussle with a snake. Or an Eland running from the car. Elands always run. They are much bigger than the truck and can jump to 10ft in the air. These elegant Egyptian cattle seem to be the biggest and baddest antelope in the Mara, but they are as skittish as their cousin the Dik-dik.

But as I sneaked closer to see if this fallen tree, in this quiet savanna had in fact made a sound, to my surprise, what the beast I found was something I was not expecting to see – a fallen elephant.

At first I was skeptical and interested in what had made it fall. Did it trip? Is it going to get back up? Did it get attacked? Ohh Yes! An elephant carcass session! I was really looking forward to that. As I waited for hyenas or some other predator to come around the body my perspective changed completely in that moment. Epiphany!. SHE WAS IN LABOR!

My mind and body began to race! Adrenaline was pumping through my veins. I quickly backed up the truck even further from my spot and watched from a far.
I hoped that I would not distract her or worse bring attention to this magnificent creature and her calve.
I could not see her posterior but did see heavy breathing. She would fan herself with her large pinnea periodically to cool herself.

In my excitement I pondered on what she may be going through--her perspective. If she could sense me and in what ways? Sound, vibration, scent? 
Did elephants really fall that drastically when in labor? Did she injure herself when she fell?
In any case I wanted to appear as small as possible to her.
I sat with her for 45 mins. Knowing that this may take hours or even days.
But of course I was shooting for the former. I would hope parturition would happen in the next 1hr or so.

After a long wait, she rose!
And to my surprise not a cow stood before me but a bull!
He was taking a nice short snooze before he continue his daily foraging routine of course.

I felt betrayed almost, by myself. I saw what I wanted to see, instead of seeing the potential options. Had myself worked up for nothing. However, it was pretty cool hanging out with this male for a couple minutes.

My perspective changed more than once as this bull lied there. Was it dead from old age? Did it get attacked? Was it in labor? And because I chose to see what I wanted to see I turned it into something more complex than it should have been. But anyways, it was still pretty cool.

I hope this brings a lesson to everyone who reads it. 

Special thanks for my Hardcore Excited Colleagues for inspiring me and pushing me forward!

Ciara S. G. Main

Thursday, March 24, 2016

How to Print a Hyena

The other day while updating the Serena clan lists, we discovered our study subjects had reached an impressive milestone: between the three clans, we counted a grand total of 202 hyenas studied by Serena Camp alone. This is thanks in no small part to the Great Wildebeest Migration. The huge herds provide a lot of food for hungry hyenas, and well-fed hyenas have a lot of babies. While we were delighted by the sudden influx of adorable black cubs romping around all of our dens, we’re even more delighted now they’re beginning to show spots. After weeks of writing “unIDcub” in all of our transcriptions, we can finally tell the youngest members of our clans apart.

Bonus to having a lot of cubs at the den: we get adorable photos like this!
In order to cement the new cubs’ place in the clans, we RAs have to undertake a tremendous task: photo printing. For days, we watch the cubs with eagle eyes, waiting to see them nurse so we can confirm their identities. Then we attempt to take clear pictures of their sides, so we can see their newly developed spots. These photos will become part of our essential photo ID books.

We then manipulate the photos on the computer, changing them to black and white and messing with things like exposure and contrast so their spots are shown to their best advantage.
The photos start like this...
And end up like this.
Next, we use an ultrasound printer to print a picture of each baby hyena’s side, which is labeled with its name, its sex, its mother’s name, and any ear damage it might acquire during its life.

The ultrasound printer uses light-sensitive paper to print its photos, so we don't have to worry about ink!
Finally, the photos get tucked away into one of our books, where we can whip it out whenever we are in doubt as to the identity of a given hyena.

This whole process occurs multiple times throughout each hyena’s life. As they grow, their spots shift and spread , so we continually take new photos of each hyena to ensure the pictures in our books are similar to how that hyena currently looks. While printing and organizing dozens of photos can be a bit of a chore, it’s worth every minute to have clear, readily-recognizable photos of each and every hyena.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Return of Happy Zebra!

They’re back! They’re really back! 

After being lost to us since early December, we finally stumbled upon the Happy Zebra den on February 26th, and man, we were three ecstatic humans that day. We christened it Houdini Den, to pay homage to their greatest disappearing act. Really, it’s no wonder we couldn’t find them sooner - the den is out in the middle of a grass field, almost 700 meters away from the nearest path. 

We are beyond overjoyed to have our third clan back, and seeing them there, actually at the den, every time we arrive is such a relief!

Many of the cubs have changed drastically during their Lost Period, growing from small, barely spotted little guys to fluffy, lanky “preteen” hyenas!

Rummy girl is growing up!

Ember went from wrinkles to scruff. 

And to our absolute delight, there were several new faces at the den! We’re still waiting to see some females nurse to confirm maternity of many of our newbies, but for now, we’ve got some pretty cute cub names (well, we think so anyway).

"Stix" and "Vincent" love both cuddling and sleeping. "Stix" even tends to sleep during egg trials. I'm not sure I've ever seen a hyena choose a nap over food before. 
(mother is still unknown)

"Tony Hawk" takes the prize for Best Mohawk. 
(mother is still unknown)

Harriet Tubman, or "Tubs" as we like to call him, seems to be best buds with "Stix" and "Vincent". 
(mom is Shangri-La)

Mandrake (left) and O'Malley (right) are our youngest cubs; Mandrake has taken to running laps around the den and running through the other cubs, rather than around them. 
Pic credit: Erin Person

Besides being amazingly adorable, the cubs at Houdini Den have been very cooperative chewers and all readily participate in egg and milk trials. I'm tempted to say even though we've only had them back for less than a month, they've provided some of the best data to date. 

Cute, productive, and findable?! I’d say we discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (why yes, I was going for cheesy with that one - Happy St. Patrick’s Day!).


Michigan State University | College of Natural Science