Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Recent hyena-cheetah shenanigans...

As we've seen from earlier blogposts (see "South hyenas are feeling rowdy" and "Interspecies Encounters") hyenas, as well as being skilled hunters, really like to "mess around" with other species. Even when they're not hungry, their curiosity can still get the best of them and they love to investigate just what their neighboring Mara animals are up to. 


This morning started out like any other, just a bunch of sleepy hyenas at the Main Doc clan's den.
I was just getting ready to put some of my cognition testing apparatus with the hyenas when they all jumped to their feet and bolted to the east. This usually indicates they've heard something exciting going on so we dropped everything and accelerated after them.  


We found five pissed off cheetahs.
These are two hyenas out of the "Five Musketeers": a coalition of five cheetah siblings that have been hanging out in Main Doc Territory. 


The five musketeers had accidentally stumbled into a high density of hyenas less than half a kilometer from the den.

This cheetah did not reciprocate the hyenas' desire for playmates.

These poor guys were just trying to relax as the morning sun came up.

The commotion kept attracting more hyenas who wanted to come check out the cheetahs.

This cheetah did not want any hyenas in its personal space.

The cheetahs attempted to hold their ground and ignore the excited hyenas, but enough was enough.

Cheetahs can run really fast and jump quite gracefully.

The cheetahs eventually found refuge in the lugga.

Pissed off cheetah.

Two hyenas chasing a cheetah into the lugga.

Once the cheetahs had fled uphill into the thicket around the lugga the hyenas were apparently satisfied. 
I'm not totally sure if the hyenas felt like they needed to defend their hunting grounds near the den, if they just wanted to assert their superiority over the cheetahs, or if their high curiosity just led them to investigate, but it didn't take long for the cheetahs to get the message and find a different place for their morning nap. 

Overall, hyena-cheetah conflict is limited; reports suggest that hyenas steal only 9% of cheetah kills. While spotted hyenas are a threat to cheetah cubs, lions are actually the biggest competitor of both species. In areas with less lions, both hyena and cheetah numbers increase, partly due to an increase in juvenile survivorship. Cheetahs also hunt more often during the daytime when other large predators like hyenas and lions are less active which helps minimize conflict. 

Further reading:
Caro, T. (1994). Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: group living in an asocial species. University of Chicago Press.

Sarah M. Durant. (2000). Living with the enemy: avoidance of hyenas and lions by cheetahs in the Serengeti, Behavioral Ecology, 11(6), 624–632. https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/11.6.624

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mara Marathoners

I am no newbie when it comes to long distance running. I ran my first marathon my junior year of high school, my second just last year, and a handful of half marathons between the two full ones. Yet I am also a Massachusetts native, and have almost exclusively run at or around sea level, so one of the biggest adjustments to life in Kenya for me has been training my body to run at over 5,000 feet in elevation. Needless to say, it has been a struggle.

That being said, my jealousy for the hyenas is very real. Hyenas are the marathoners of the Mara. Once they have selected their prey, spotted hyenas can chase them for several kilometers, potentially reaching speeds around 60km/h. They have a number of physiological advantages that allow them to be such superb runners. Their claws are non-retractable, giving them good traction and allowing them to make sharp turns. Compared to their body size, they have a very large heart, giving them incredible stamina. They also have a long snout filled with blood vessels. As they breath, the exposed air vessels help to cool their body temperature, allowing them to run farther without overheating than many other runners in the Mara.

While the Mara holds these amazing distance runners, Kenya itself is also famed for producing some of the best distance runners in the world. Particularly, the Kalenjin tribe is famed, with one member, Wilson Kipsang (pictured below), setting the record for the fastest marathon time ever recorded—26.2 miles run in 2 hours 3 minutes, which averages to 4 minutes 42 seconds per mile. Diet and a lifetime of living at a high altitude certainly help explain why people from the Kalenjin are such phenomenal runners, but they, like the hyenas, have physiological adaptations that appear to give them an advantage. They have remarkably thin ankles and calves. When running, the leg acts as a pendulum, and having as little weight as possible at the bottom makes it easier to swing, which could make a runner faster. For more information on Kalenjin runners follow this link: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/11/01/241895965/how-one-kenyan-tribe-produces-the-worlds-best-runners


 Wilson Kipsang has the fastest marathon time ever recorded, running at roughly 13 miles per hour for 26.2 miles straight. But even he would be outstripped easily by the hyena. So in my own personal opinion, spotted hyenas are some of the best marathoners in the world.  






Thursday, August 31, 2017

On to the Next Great Thing

Well a year has come and gone for this Fisi camper and what a ride it has been.  It has been an incredible privilege to work in the Mara for an entire year studying one of the most under appreciated and misunderstood large carnivores in the world.  It truly has been a pleasure to get to watch hyenas (and all the other wildlife) day in and day out, becoming intricately faceted into a small portion of their lives - something that frankly you cannot put any sort of tangible value on.  While I would simply love to live and breath in the Mara for the rest of my life, it is time for me to depart from this land and start some new adventures.  Before I do however, I'd like to thank everyone who got me here and supported me along the way.  There's no other place to start than with Dr. Holekamp, who saw fit to ordain me with this wonderful opportunity to begin with.  To her credit, this is the most professional and technically sound project I've worked on in my short field career and that can only be seen as a testament to her leadership, patience, and endurance.  To Philimon and Moses, my heroes of the year.  Without them cooking our meals, washing the dishes, doing our laundry, and generally making sure camp operated in an orderly and efficient fashion, there would simply be no way to go out on obs and collect the data on the hyenas.  There will be never enough thanks and praise that I can send their way.  To my Serena Lodge family that welcomed me with open arms on my first day in the Mara, gave me the comfort of a home, and sent me off with tears and hugs, I will never forget your compassion.  To the Mara Conservancy and all of the rangers who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect us and all of the magical wildlife contained within the borders of the Mara Triangle, this would've never been possible without your sacrifice and all of those who served before you.  To the hyenas of North, South, and Happy Zebra clans for your nonstop cacophony of entertainment.  Thanks for making the year as entertaining as it was educating. And last but not certainly least, to mom, because you always need to thank mom.  Without further adieu, so long Maasai Mara! Hopefully we will meet again in another life!
Above, we have a glorious silverback lounging in the montane forests of Virunga National Park, DRC. Below, a curious baby eyes his new visitors warily.
 On my way back to the land of the free and the home of the brave, I ran into some fuzzy friends in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the shadow of the mountains of Virunga National Park.  There are only 880 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild and they are under constant threat from poaching, habitat loss, and wildlife trafficking.  Seeing gorillas in the wild has always been a dream of mine since I was just a wee tot watching Nature on PBS on Sunday nights.  I've finally been able to make this dream a reality and there is simply no way to describe how surreal, humbling, and astonishing this experience was - you guys will just have to do it yourselves one day!
Welcome to Mount Nyirangongo, also located in Virunga NP.  The world's largest lava lake rests here, measuring in at over 300m in diameter.  The rangers told me it would be cold at the top, but not so much with the assistance of grandest campfire of them all. Fun Fact: This is the precise location where Frodo threw the Ring of Power into the fires of Mt. Doom.  If you don't believe me you can ask the hobbit yourself!
 Next up on the docket, the adventure known colloquially as life has me running off to the Bahamas and more specifically Forfar Field Station.  I'll be working there as an environmental educator and telling all the little kiddos about all the fishies in the sea so if you find yourselves rowing past Andros Island feel free to give a holler and don't be a stranger.  Until then, safari njema as the Kenyans like to say.
A quite beautiful sunrise at Forfar Field Station (©International Field Studies, Inc.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Birds of the Mara

We spend a lot of time focusing on the mammals of the Mara, e.g. hyenas, lions, and other large carnivores but the Maasai Mara is also one of the top birding destinations in the world. I just started keeping track of my bird sightings (using an app called ebird from the Cornell Ornithology Lab) and I've already documented over 100 new species. Here's a few of my favorites!

Birds of Prey: 
The most impressive bird of prey in the Mara, the Martial Eagle. This one is a juvenile.
Next, the Bateleur. Another very impressive eagle. This one is easy to spot while it's flying due to it's uniquely shaped wings and very short tail. Close up, its red face is a give away.



Here's a juvenile Bateleur. 
This is a Fish Eagle, similar to America's Bald Eagle.

The tawny eagle, a common but impressive sight in the Mara. They hunt and scavenge.
A black-shouldered kite, another common site in the Mara. They're have bright red eyes.
A Verraux's Eagle Owl, a slightly less common sight.

Common birds in camp:

The spot-flanked barbet, a common visitor to our Talek camp.
The brown-throated wattle-eye. These birds have unique red patches above their eyes.


The tropical boubou. A common breakfast table visitor in  our Serena camp.
Black-backed puffback. Similar to the tropical boubou but with red eyes.


A speckled mouse bird. These guys are always hanging sideways on their branches.
A beautiful male African Paradise Flycatcher. They often zip around near our choo (latrine).

A slate-coloured boubou. This one likes to hop around underneath the breakfast table.
A Common Bulbul. We have these guys all over camp and they're easy to spot due to the yellow under their tails. 
A Red-Fronted Tinkerbird. This guy is in the wood-pecker family and is often seen near the choo in Talek camp.

A beautiful and striking Purple Grenadier.  I often see these guys in the thinner scrub around the edge of our Talek camp.

Some birds from around the Mara:

An African Green Pigeon. They blend in really well with the leaves of a Fig Tree.

The White-browed Coucal.

A Northern Shrike. 

The popular Helmeted Guinea Fowl that often graces napkins, dish towels, and mugs.

The red-billed hornbill, also known as Zazu. 

The Southern Ground Hornbill. These birds are large and impressive and also make a very low booming sound.


What African bird list wouldn't be complete without the Common Ostrich? 

The Red-necked Francolin. A grassland bird that likes to hang out on the tracks we drive on.
A Lilac-breasted Roller. This is one of  the most eye-catching common birds of the Mara (see below).

Anytime you see a flash of iridescent blue... it's the Lilac-breasted Roller.

Kingfishers:

The Pied Kingfisher is a frequent sight along small creeks.

The Giant Kingfisher is truly giant. This guy is the size of a soccer ball. I've only seen one once!

The Woodland Kingfisher. These are also a slightly less frequent sight along creeks. I've seen them a few times.

Birds on mammals:
Anytime you see a bird on a Zebra or Buffalo it's almost always the Yellow-billed Oxpecker (more common in the Mara than the Red-billed Oxpecker).

The Oxpeckers all seem to like to choose the same Zebra.

Every once in a while you'll see a Wattled Starling on the Zebra instead of an Oxpecker.

Parrots, Sunbirds, and Bee-eaters.

Meyer's Parrot AKA the Brown Parrot. I saw this one in camp by the choo.
The Variable Sunbird, identifiable by its bright yellow belly. Sunbirds are tiny hummingbird sized animals that almost always have some kind of iridescent coloring on them.

The Mariqua sunbird. Males have a collar of green, blue and purple.

The Brimstone Canary, a common yellow bird in camp.

Two beautiful Little Bee-eaters.
Glossy Starlings:

The common Ruppell's Starling. These iridescent purple birds are frequent beggars at the breakfast table.

The slightly less frequently seen Hildebrand's Starling.

The Superb Starling. Its coloring is pretty superb.

A Greater Blue-eared Starling. Their yellow eyes against blue and teal feathers is quite striking!
Herons, Lapwings, Storks, etc.

The Grey Heron, similar to America's Great Blue Heron.

Another large Heron, the Black-headed Heron.

The most obnoxious Lapwing, the Crowned Lapwing. These guys are constantly screaming at our car for disturbing them, but rightly so... they're often defending their eggs and chicks, like this adorable tiny little guy! 

Temminck's Courser. A cool looking smaller bird.

The Black-winged Lapwing. Say that ten times fast!

The classic Saddle-billed Stork.

Two Egyptian Geese. We have a water hole named after them in Happy Zebra territory.

The graceful Grey-crowed Crane.
Last of all, the extremely homely Marabou Stork.
There are hundreds more birds here in the Mara and I couldn't share all of them, but I hope you got the idea that the Mara is an amazing place to see a lot of bird diversity!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science