Necropsies: a scientist's chore (Warning: This blog contains pictures of blood and guts)
Author: Kenna Lehmann
First, a little background:
I am a field scientist, but sometimes I am a wussy field scientist. I find bugs fascinating but, spiders terrify me. I’ll bathe in a crocodile infested river if I have to, but only if the water is clear enough to see the crocs coming. Perhaps my strangest “atypical for a scientist” trait is the fact that I passionately dislike doing necropsies. I am enthralled by the inner workings and details of the animal body, no matter the species, because they all have unique adaptations. I love reading about those adaptations in books and seeing diagrams and even pictures but, when it comes to cutting open an animal and seeing it all for myself, I can’t handle it. It’s not the blood and guts; those don’t bother me. Somehow I manage to freak myself out with the idea that this was once a living breathing animate creature, and now it’s not. I get light headed and nauseous and I am deeply affected by the “smell of death” (whether it’s real or imagined, I’m not sure).
I learned this lesson early on when I had an unexpectedly difficult time dissecting a fetal pig in my high school biology class. That knocked veterinarian off my list of possible “things I want to be when I grow up” and made room for research biologist.
Next, to the story:
On obs one day in December we came across one of our collared females who had been wounded by lions. She was in very bad shape, so bad that she didn’t move when we drove right up to her or when we got out of the car. Unfortunately, in this situation, even if there had been anything we could have done, it would have inappropriate to do so and interfere in the natural process. We resumed obs and by the time we came back to check on her an hour later, she had passed away.
For me, this experience was sobering enough without having to also load her into the car and take her back to camp for a necropsy. As a scientist I completely understand and appreciate the wealth of data that we collect during a necropsy but, I just can’t get excited about helping to perform one. I was in a state of utter dread the entire ride back to camp. I was convinced I was going to throw up, pass out, or both in quick succession. I quickly made my case to Sean and Kasaine and allowed them to take on the jobs of flensing the skull and cutting so that I could maintain my distance from the specimen by doing the paperwork and sample labeling.
Part of the necropsy involves determining the cause of death. That was easy: lions. Lions are the number one cause of death of hyenas and the lions hadn’t left much to the imagination. Our poor females had puncture wounds from claws and teeth in her neck, chest stomach, and inner back leg. One particularly nasty wound on her neck was the probable cause of death and seemed to have been bleeding the most.
Next, we had to take body measurements such as body length, height at the shoulder, leg lengths, and head circumference. Then, Sean cut off the hyena’s head and began flensing the skull. At this point, I mentally checked out. Our last task was to take organ and tissue samples. I focused on labeling my vials for the samples and recording how many of each we collected. After about an hour or so, I was so busy that I forgot to feel sick and light headed. By the end, I was surprised to find that the collection of our last few samples was captivating.
Kasaine had done a fine job locating all the vital organs that we needed to collect samples from, until we reached the sex organs. This is where my junior high and high school sex ed classes, and mammology class came in handy and gave me the advantage. I knew generally where the uterus and ovaries should be and what they should look like, while Kasaine was completely clueless. We located both, dissected the uterus and found a fetus! I realize how strange it is that this was the most exciting part for me and I can’t really explain why I didn’t find it even more depressing to find the fetus. I think it was the exploration of finding the correct organs and confirming our suspicion by finding the fetus itself.
I doubt I’ve completely cured myself of my necropsy handicap but at least I know I can survive them and find something positive in the experience.
Video from BBC's Big Cat Live
The segment from the BBC's Big Cat Live filmed with the Holekamp Lab in 2008 is online! Check out this and more from the Big Cat series.
Author: Kay Holekamp
Readers of this blog may occasionally ask themselves, "What ever becomes of all the information about hyenas these people are collecting in the African bush?" Well, the answer is that we do a lot of different things with the data we collect in the field. For instance, we help the managers of national parks figure out how best to manage hyenas and other large carnivores, we help develop broad conservation strategies for African wildlife, and we also make our results available to our colleagues in the scientific community. Every year we publish a number of papers in professional journals addressing topics in animal behavior, ecology and evolutionary biology. Our most recent paper, which appeared this week in a journal called Behavioral Ecology, attracted the attention of the BBC. This article, which has senior grad student Jenn Smith as the first author, inquires why hyenas sometimes gang up to form aggressive coalitions against their clanmates. Check out the photo feature about our new article on the BBC website.
Since first being introduced to the West clan in 2007, my favorite male has been Barcelona. Barcelona is the second-highest ranking immigrant male in the clan, but by far the best looking (in my opinion). He's always extremely well-fed and well-coiffed, like he keeps a comb and a mirror in his pocket just in case he runs into any ladies (which he always does—he's quite the social butterfly).
Barce moves from hyena sub-group to sub-group with confidence and ease—unusual qualities in an adult immigrant male. He seems comfortable with his place in society and knows when to keep his head low and his mouth shut, and when it's okay to push his luck a little further. For example, he's the only adult male I've ever seen groom an adult female...and she loved every second of it. Nobody else could get away with that. You can practically hear him counting down the days until Midget, the only immigrant male above Barce on the social ladder and an old, old man, kicks the bucket.
But Barcelona and I have a love-hate relationship. As in, I love him, and he hates me. And all other Fisi Campers. And our cars. Since the day he arrived in the West clan back in 2002, he's been extremely "spooky," which is our term for a hyena that fears our car. It's not unusual for immigrant males to be spooky—after all, whereas the adult females and cubs have all grown up with our cars, seeing us every day since the day they first poked their head out of the den, the immigrant males aren't used to being observed so closely and are understandably a tad more wary. Most of them get over it after a while...but not Barce.
One of my goals for being out here is to dart the males in our clans, in part because we need their DNA to determine paternity for all our cubs. As of one month ago, all the males in our West clan had been darted with one exception—Barcelona. He's been around for seven years—a long time in hyena years—but has thus far managed to evade all the efforts to dart him. When he sees us, he hides behind bushes, trees, other hyenas, grass clumps, you name it. He's very crafty: sometimes he won't even hide his whole body, he'll just hide the parts that he knows we can shoot (the butt and the side). In the evenings, when we can't dart because of impending darkness, he'll prance around the car, lollygagging with his butt in the air. For three field seasons he has been taunting me like this.
This year, I came to Kenya with the expectation that it would be my final field season, so I knew it was now or never for me to mend my relationship with Barcelona. As the months ticked down, I wracked my brain, hoping for a stroke of genius, some brilliant plan that no one had thought of until now. I asked everyone I knew for ideas, and here's what I got:
-get scuba gear and a waterproof gun and wait in the river for him to cross
-dig a tunnel that pops up near one of his favorite spots
-rent a helicopter and shoot him with one of those enormous nets used to dart elephants and rhinos
-buy a predator drone from the military and shoot him via joystick from my tent at camp
As creative and helpful as these ideas were, they all seemed slightly out of my budget range of zero US dollars (conversion to Kenyan shillings: zero Ksh). I was getting progressively more desperate...and more obsessed. Barcelona had started to haunt my dreams (no, I'm not exaggerating). I started to mentally prepare myself for what seemed like the inevitability that I would have to leave Kenya without his DNA. His cubs would forever go unclaimed, the only daddy-less black marks in an otherwise perfect paternity data set. The thought was devastating.
But there was one secret weapon I hadn't counted on: my man. And this time I'm not talking about Barcelona (although I have referred to him as "my man" more times than I can count). My boyfriend Dan was joining me for the last six weeks of my field season, and one benefit to having him here was going to be that he could be my "shooter" (I'm the driver). He had a little experience in marksmanship (thank youuuuuuu, Boy Scouts!) and is just generally very good at that kind of thing. So his first afternoon at Fisi Camp I plopped him out in the driveway with the darting gun, put out our practice target, and told him to get to work. The next morning he darted his first hyena and over the next week a few more to boot. But no Barce.
Dan could see how important darting Barcelona was to me, and being a competitive person, it soon became an obsession of his as well. So after a week he proclaimed that if Barce wouldn't let us get close enough to shoot (less than 30m), we would just have to figure out a way to shoot him from farther away. Three hours of practice shooting in the driveway later, and I had a shooter who was hitting the target from 40m away. This development introduced an entirely new set of rules to the game, and it rejuvenated my hope. I started to allow myself to think that we might actually get him. Our first few days post-New Rules were unsuccessful but encouraging. Barce was letting us get within 40m...a distance he thought was safe for him, since it had been for so many years. We could feel that it was coming.
And then, on October 29th—what a glorious day!—the stars aligned. We found Barcelona roaming around a small thicket of bushes, a little chubby and therefore more lethargic than usual. Perfect. He was wary of us, as always, and was fulfilling his mantra of "constant vigilance!" We can't shoot hyenas when they're looking at us, because we don't want them to associate the experience with humans, and Barce wouldn't take his eyes off us. But we didn't give up. We were following him in the car from about 40m away, waiting for something to distract him, when off in the distance we saw a herd of wildebeest begin running in a panic. Barce's eyes lit up as quickly as ours did. As we watched, a hyena isolated one wildebeest from the herd and began to close the gap. For a split second, Barce forgot himself and paused, mesmerized by the thought of fresh meat. That's all we (okay, Dan) needed. He pulled the trigger and we watched and waited to see if it hit.
Now I can relax. And relax we did—the last photo is of us celebrating. Dan is wearing a pod from a tree on his head as a crown. Don't ask...he just shot Barcelona—he can do whatever he wants!!! (I may live to regret those words....)
Author: Kay Holekamp
One of the most mysterious and bizarre characteristics of the spotted hyena is the heavily masculinized genitalia of the female. Here you can see adult female Gucci (wearing the radio collar) investigating the genitalia of adult female Carter (who has her butt toward the camera and her tail raised) during a greeting ceremony at the den (that's Gucci's cub, Alfredo, scratching himself while his mom greets). Notice that Carter has a male-like pseudoscrotum and a male-like phallus.
Look Out Poachers
The Mara Conservancy has just made a giant leap forward in anti-poaching efforts. Just this week they welcomed eight dog-handling rangers and two new “officers” into their ranks. After an intensive four-week training with two professional dog trainers from the Colorado police department, these dogs are ready to assist the Conservancy and surrounding lodges.
Using their amazing bloodhound sense of smell, the rangers will bring these dogs to poachers’ camps and follow individual tracks left behind as people flee. For Mamusi and Murani (the dogs; meaning “something we’ve been waiting for” and “warrior” in Masai) following the trails left by the poachers is the easy part. For the rangers, keeping up with such strong dogs that enjoy every minute of tracking, is much more challenging.
Jeff and I had the opportunity to follow along on a training exercise and boy can these dogs run! To prepare the rangers for extreme all-night tracking, each ranger had to go through (and continue) rigorous conditioning. This includes running multiple kilometers around the camp daily, all-encompassing weight training, and being able to traverse the nearby escarpment in under seven minutes!
We ran about a mile and a half following the dogs in our practice run, and I cannot imagine what it must feel like during the real thing. Running through the dark of night with no lights, surrounded by grass that is at least eight feet tall, all the time searching for people that you know have no remorse for breaking laws.
After lightly jogging behind these dogs, I know there is absolutely no way I could out-run them in the middle of the night.
Good luck poachers when they are at full speed!
Author: Jeff Smith
In a land where Elf (the dominant female) is queen and clashes with lions are the norm, we bring you a clan. Located between the beautiful Oz Valley and the famous Mara River, this is where the drama unfolds. Known to many as “fisi,” we just call them “North.” This is the North Side Story.
Episode 2: “Fifty Cent’s Triumph”
It was just like any other day at the North den. That was until food was brought back for the cubs. It was at first a free for all with Krest, Avalanche, Sagrada and Fifty Cent fighting over the small leftovers. Sagrada then stealthily swooped in and stole the food from the other cubs and ran across the den to keep what was left for himself.
This peeked the interest of a previously sleeping Muay Tai who ganged up with Fifty Cent to try and recover the food with force. Sagrada nimbly avoided these two but in doing so he missed the sneak attack by Avalanche. Avalanche took advantage of the distraction by Muay Tai and Fifty Cent and claimed the food for himself. After successfully stealing the food, Avalanche came snout to snout with his big brother Tsunami. Dominant versus submissive. A showdown between brothers.
Tsunami saw his opportunity and without hesitation made his move. He did not count on Avalanche’s patented side-step move, and Avalanche smoothly slid by his brother who missed the food completely. This last movement woke a sleeping (as usual) Jiu-Jitsu who decided Avalanche’s prize looked like a tasty morsel. Jiu-Jitsu knew he was bigger than Avalanche so he tried a rush approach on the food. Avalanche was not fooled and countered with a bite that caught Jiu-Jitsu off guard and caused him to retreat quickly. Avalanche then made his first mistake. He set down his prize to look for further attacks. At that point Fifty Cent swiftly swooped in and tore the remaining meat off the bone and quickly retreated into the den, leaving Avalanche staring in disbelief. Within a couple of minutes Fifty Cent reemerged from the den without the food and looking quite triumphant. Fifty Cent’s raid temporarily distracted Avalanche giving the other cubs a chance to sneak in and secure the prize.
What followed was a melee of attacks until Sagrada again emerged with the prize. His capturing of the prize surprised him so much, considering his low rank that he overlooked the one cub he should have been watching for, Fifty Cent.
Fifty Cent bided his time until he knew Sagrada was lost in chewing. He then snuck in and grabbed the bone from the complacent Sagrada and again raced back into the den leaving all the other cubs staring in confusion.
My, what big teeth you have...
A hyena's mouth is a pretty intimidating sight. But, as long as you're not a tasty ungulate, it's also a fascinating one.
Surprisingly, it's not those deadly-sharp canines (those dagger-like teeth in front) that enable hyenas to do so much damage. Instead, it's the rather innocuous-looking premolars, located farther back along the jaws, that give hyenas their bone-cracking abilities.
Hyenas will carefully position a bone on one side of their mouth and bite down. Hard. Really hard.
From measuring hyenas' teeth, we can gather all sorts of information about them. We can tell an individual's rank (since low-rankers must crack far more bone than high-rankers, their premolars are much more worn), we can tell an individual's age (older animals' teeth are more worn than younger animals), and whether a hyena is "right-sided" or "left-sided" (just like we prefer to use one hand to write or to throw a ball, hyenas tend to use one side of their mouth more often to crack bone).
Now that I think about it, maybe that's why our hyenas steal soap...it gives their jaws a nice rest from all that work.
The crazy things guys do for girls
They pick fights.
They twist themselves into knots.
They puff up and strut around.
They dance (awkwardly).
They're willing to get down and dirty.
They help scratch that hard-to-reach itch.
They even get down on bended knee.
After all that - if they're lucky - they get the girl.
It's sad when any hyena dies.
It's even worse when it's a hyena you're particularly fond of.
It's hardest of all when it's a tiny cub.
Last night, we came upon what originally seemed like an idyllic scene at the Happy Zebra den. Sawtooth - one of my favorite hyenas - was grooming her tiny black cub Neverland, who was born fewer than 20 days ago. The cub, however, wasn’t moving. We could see that his head was covered in blood. After the vigorous bath didn’t breathe life into Neverland, Sawtooth stood over her motionless cub, looking confused. Several minutes later, she lay down in the denhole, just a meter or so from Neverland's body.
None of the other hyenas at the den seemed to understand why the cub was so very still. Over the next hour, several of them came over to sniff and prod the dead cub. Snapper, a Happy Zebra subadult, even picked Neverland up and carried him around for a while before she lost interest, placing him carefully back where she had found him.
Our necropsy showed that Neverland had died from massive head trauma just an hour or two before we arrived at the den. His entire skull and jaw had been crushed. While adult hyenas have extremely robust skulls, a young cub's skull still has a lot of developing left to do, and is surprisingly fragile.
Notes From Kenya is a blog run by the students in the Holekamp Lab at Michigan State University, College of Natural Science, East Lansing, Michigan, U.S.A.