Friday, February 16, 2018

Lets play a game: Rock or Hyena?

After being on the project for nearly 7 months now, I have picked up a lot of new skills: how to run a bush camp, drive a stick shift, ID hyenas, draw blood, etc. However, there is one vital skill that I didn't even know one needed to have in the first place.

How to tell the difference between a hyena and a rock.

Seriously, The number of times I have had to do a double-take or have the car stopped to check with binoculars to confirm if the brown blob in the distance is indeed a hyena and not a rock is embarrassingly high. And it's not just rocks: termite mounds, warthogs, topi, dead wood, piles of dirt, and even the backside of an elephant (seriously).

For those who haven't worked in the field let me show you with a guessing game. Below are photos I have taken on the job that have genuinely made me stop and check to see if it was a hyena or not. Some are hyenas, some are not, the key is at the bottom of the post. Please comment with how many you got correct!













Key: A: Hyena      B: Rock      C: Rock      D: Warthog      E: Hyena      F: Hyena     

G: Termite Mound      H: Topi      I: Hyena      J: Dirt mound      K: Hyena      L: Termite mound

M: Rock

Here are close up pictures for those curious:






Sunday, January 21, 2018

Nobody respects a hyena

The other day my parents were visiting so I took them for a sundowner. On the way to the sundowner we stopped at Egyptian Goose, a man-made watering hole in Happy Zebra territory, to show them a pair of Grey crowned cranes and their chicks. 
Grey crowned crane chicks following their father to the safety of the island. 
We expected to see cute chicks, but what we didn’t expect to see was how vigorously the parents could defend these chicks. After leading the chicks to the safety of their island, the Mama crane flew off into the tall grass up the bank and spread their wings in a display.

An angry crane parent displaying at BRUM.
At first, we couldn’t see why she was displaying, but then we noticed a subadult hyena, BRUM, wandering around in the tall grass. Not content with a simple display, the crane started flying at BRUM, causing them to run pell mell for the water. In doing so, they tripped and fell down a bank in a hilarious manner. 
BRUM showing just how graceful a hyena can be. 
Unhurt but embarrassed, the hyena continued running from the angry mother, who wasn’t ready to give up. After zigging and zagging, BRUM finally dove to safety in the lugga by the road.

BRUM running top speed to avoid an angry crane parent. 
After securing the safety of her chicks, Mama crane returned to the island and was greeted by a concerned Baba crane, who had remained behind to protect his chicks. 

Baba crane congratulating Mama crane on a job well done. 
I knew that graduation was a dangerous time for a juvenile hyena, but I did not think birds would be one of those dangers!

Friday, January 19, 2018


Yesterday was my 6 month Kenyaversery!!! I cannot believe how fast my time here is flying by! For this blog post I thought Id tell you about darting! Darting is a lot of fun (for me as a science geek anyways), but it is NOT a task to be taken lightly.

The situation has to be very specific for a hyena to be safely darted. A hyena should never be darted if:
            It is looking at you
            Other hyenas are watching
            Any animal that can hurt the hyena (lions, elephants, buffalos) are present
            People (tourists or cow herders) are around
            There is water nearby
            There are dense bushes nearby where you could lose the drunk hyena
            The hyena is a mom nursing her cubs

Once the hyena has been hit by the dart, a stopwatch is started and everyone in the car sits still and quiet, as we do not want to draw the hyenas attention to the vehicle. Then once the hyena goes down, we have a list of operations to follow in order.

1.     We cover the hyenas eyes with a cloth. We don’t know what the animal is able to perceive under the influence of telazol, so we want to prevent them from seeing us.
2.     Next we draw blood. This is very tricky to learn. I drew blood for the first time the other day, and even with a really good vein and great teachers (Mary and Benson) it was still tricky.

3.     Once blood has been collected (being able to analyze hormones from plasma is time sensitive, so this is top priority) we apply eye ointment to keep the hyenas eyes from drying out.
4.     Measuring blood glucose. This must be done before the blood begins to coagulate.
5.     Taking dental measurements. PM3 (a lower tooth that us used by the hyena to eat and crunch bone) is a good indicator of age, so we take three measurements of this and average them, to make sure we have the most accurate reading possible. We also record any broken teeth or cavities.
6.     After teeth, we collect a hair sample, followed by paste and bacterial swab samples.
7.     The swabs we take are from the anal sac, anus, prepuse (foreskin surrounding phallus which both male and female hyenas have), buccal (inside the mouth on the gum above the 3rd molar), nares (inside the nostril), and ears.
8.     Body measurements are taken

9.   We weigh the hyena: whoever guesses closest to the actual weight wins! 
10.  If necessary, we attach a collar. This allows us to track the animal in the territory

After all the data has been collected, we find a secluded bush with lots of shade to put the hyena under until it recovers. We carefully check the surrounding area to make sure there are no puddles it could fall in and drown, no rocks it could hit its head on as it wakes up. We pour water over its body to keep it cool, and keep the rag over its eyes (we get that later). That afternoon we generally go to make sure the hyena has either left, or if it is still there, make sure it is ok.

Once we return to camp, we process the blood and make sure the darting sheet is complete, restock and clean the darting equipment, and get ready for the next darting!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tough Tommies

Normally when I think of Thompson gazelles, Tommies, the phrase “relentless fighter” doesn’t come to mind. However on Christmas Eve I saw two of them engaged in what can only be described as an epic showdown.

It was fascinating to watch the strategies the combatants used, and how they employed their horns in the fight. A bout was initiated by butting their heads together, and then using the tips of their horns to lunges, feint, and parry. 

The initial contact.

Examples of the fencing using the tips of their horns.

Once they locked horns, not only did the Tommies push against each other in an effort try to shove the other over, but they also would try to catch one of their opponent’s horns using the ridges along the shaft of the horn and clamp it to the ground. The trapped opponent would then have to twist his way out of the clamp, and once freed the two would start the process all over again.
Locking horns to test each other's strength.
The Tommy on the right clamping the horn of the horn of his opponent to the ground.

What also amazed me was the fact that these Tommies had been fighting when arrived, went on non-stop for the 5 minutes we watched them, and continued to duke it out with no signs of stopping as we left. To keep up that level of exertion for so long is no small feat, and is worthy of respect.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

BBC on Location

In late November, Emily and I got an email from Professor Holekamp about some BBC producers who were interested in working with the Michigan State University Mara Hyena Project. They wanted to film our hyenas for a new program called First Year on Earth. This series will follow animals through their first year on earth (self-explanatory title). A flurry of emails later, they arranged to come stay at the nearby Serena Lodge in mid December.

Vianet, Mark, Dominic, Sammy, and Johnny

Johnny (sound guy), Mark (camera guy), Dominic (producer), Vianet (camera guy/host), and Sammy (driver extraordinaire) arrived at the lodge on December 12. We showed them the North clan den, which is currently experiencing a huge cub boom. It is important to the BBC to have accurate and detailed information about the animals they are filming, so we were asked about lineages, behavior, and biology. 
Emily answering some questions about hyena behavior

The hyenas did us proud, and after a couple days they adjusted to having a new car at the den and behaved like their normal wonderful selves. The film crew got great footage of the moms and cubs, and even saw a carcass session and elephant-hyena interactions. 

Vianet filming the North clan
The crew left on Wednesday, and we are sad to see them go. They will be back in March/April and again in August to follow up with the clan.

First Year on Earth will be premiering in early 2019. Stay tuned for more details.

Friday, December 22, 2017


We all have that one hyena that we just love a little more than all the others. For me that hyena is Pumba (PUMB), or otherwise, to me, known as Poombieee!! As one of JUNO’s cubs, he is part of the Disney sidekicks lineage. JUNO used to be the matriarch of our Pond clan, but has recently been pushed out of the number one spot by AQUA. At about 2.5 years of age, PUMB is getting ready to disperse to other clans, because of this we often go long periods of time without seeing him (sadly). Fortunately for me, this cheeky guy loves the car and likes to come right up to have a peek inside to see what us weird two legged creatures are up to! This makes Poombie pretty easy to ID, as he will often approach the car upon our arrival. He is quite fantastic!

FACT: Poombie is the best hyener in the entire project.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science