Author: Andy Flies
After spending nearly 8 months in the Mara, I had never seen a baby cheetah. That gets crossed off the list now. No need to say a lot about these pictures. The bottom line is baby cheetahs are cute. Not as cute as baby hyenas, but close.
Hyenas, by the numbers
Let's face it: we all love fun facts. With these, you can impress your friends and family, or at least procrastinate for a few minutes...
The oldest hyena we’ve studied is K-Butt, who lived for nearly 17.5 years.
The lovable Bailey holds the record for our heaviest hyena, weighing in at a whopping 179 lbs. She was just under 3 feet tall at the shoulder.
Hyenas can run at 40 miles per hour for about 2 miles. For comparison, the fastest human clocked in at just over 27 miles per hour, and that was only for 100 meters. Wimp.
In the longest hyena hunt ever recorded, a hyena chased an eland for nearly 15 miles.
While the average hunting group size is 1.8 hyenas, successful zebra hunts require 10 or more hyenas. The reason? Hyenas need to call in reinforcements against male zebras, who protect their ladies fiercely and have a deadly kick.
Here in the Mara, hyenas kill 95% of the food that they eat. I bet you scavenge a heck of a lot more than 5% of your food.
Their bone-crushing bite force has been estimated at about 9000 newtons (2000 pounds), which roughly equals the force of a big NFL hit.
They have 11 distinctive vocalizations.
They can hear noises from over 6 miles away, and can probably identify odors from a distance of nearly 2 miles.
A mother hyena’s milk contains 15% protein, compared to less than 1% protein in human milk. No wonder hyenas grow up fast and become big bullies!
When erect, a female hyena's pseudopenis may be up to 7 inches long. Enough said.
Remember, we're talking about spotted hyenas...the other hyena species are strange in their own ways. Most of the info here is from our observations. The rest is from the IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group website and the book The Spotted Hyena by Hans Kruuk. Both are fantastic sources of information for you hyena-philes out there!
A big bad African bird
I hope you’re having a better hair day than this guy!
This crazy-looking fellow, which stands over 3 ft high, is a secretary bird. I think it looks like it should be hanging out with dragons and unicorns in a mystical world rather than here on the African plains, but luckily, Mother Nature didn’t ask me.
I’ve heard a few different versions of the origin of this bird’s name. First, the feathers sticking out of its head look like pens stuck behind a secretary’s ear. Along similar (albeit slightly more sexist) lines, I’ve also heard that - like a secretary – the bird has nice legs.
The third explanation for the name is less entertaining, but more historically accurate. It seems that "secretary" is actually derived from the Arabic word saqr-et-tair, meaning "hunter-bird." True to its title, this bird is a formidable predator, and is one of only two birds in the world that hunt exclusively on foot. These guys are especially skilled at hunting snakes. Their crazy crown of feathers is both a threat display and a distraction for angry serpents, and their legs have scales that act as armor against snakebites. In fact, in rural areas secretary birds are often taken as pets to keep the land snake-free…they’re an avian analog of barn cats.
Their hunting method is really fascinating to watch (but then again, I have a thing for peculiar predators). With those long, lovely legs, a secretary bird stamps the ground to flush potential victims out of their hiding places. Once the prey is in sight, they either stomp on it, rendering it unconscious - then eat it alive - or peck it to death with their strong, sharp beaks. And you thought hyenas were brutal!
Christmas dinner in the Mara
Vegetarians, turn back now. Although, since you’re reading a carnivore blog, I’m assuming you have no objection to – or even get some gratification out of – the consumption of large amounts of meat.
Forget ham, turkey, and leg of lamb…the Maasai celebrate with nyama choma. It literally means “roast meat,” and throughout their history, the Maasai have perfected this delicacy. Here’s how it happens.
Fresh meat – ours was goat, although beef is also traditional – is loaded onto spits, kind of like a giant shishkabobs. The spits are stuck into the ground and bent over a fire. As the meat roasts, the spits are turned so that all the meat is cooked to perfection…the outside is crisp and deliciously caramelized, and the inside is juicy and perfectly tender.
Hope your holidays are as happy – and scrumptious – as mine!
The thrill of the hunt
We came upon a group of zebras meandering along the riverbank. Out of nowhere, a lioness streaked out of the bushes...
Running at full speed, she lunged for a big female zebra (deftly avoiding its powerful kick)!
She hung on for dear life and dragged the zebra to the ground.
Against all odds, the zebra made a valiant attempt to stand up...
But the lioness had the zebra in a death grip, and she tightened her stranglehold on the zebra's neck.
Finally, it was all over. The lioness, panting hard, finally relaxed.
It wasn't long before this mama and her cubs arrived from over a nearby hill, followed closely by 9 other lions. The pride settled down to a nice family dinner.
Once upon a time, a hippo lived in a water hole about a kilometer north of our camp. One night, that hippo went out grazing, as he did every evening. Unfortunately, he never made it home. A group of hungry lions were lying in ambush, and hunted the hippo down just a few hundred meters from his little pool.
In the interest of science, I've decided to document where those 3 tons of hippo meat go, day by day. Here's the carcass about 12 hours after the hippo was killed. Two male lions were at the kill, and from the size of their bellies, they had apparently been gorging themselves all night.
These guys were already so full that they could barely breathe. They'd nibble half-heartedly on some meat, then waddle away a few feet and lie down to rest and digest.
In 12 hours, the lions have barely made a dent in the massive carcass. However, they haven't had any competition for their prize yet. We'll have to wait to see what happens overnight.
**By the way, I know not everyone is as interested in seeing photos of carcasses as we are. If these posts get too gross, comment and let me know!
Hyena Myth #1: Busted
Let’s face it, hyenas are weird. And, while their bizarre qualities are what we scientists can’t get enough of, they’re also the reason that hyenas have been forever loathed and misunderstood. There are more myths surrounding hyenas then I can count, but we’ll start with one of the strangest and most common....
Yesterday, a safari guide stopped us on the road. He said, in a hushed tone (like many guides, he liked to pretend he knew everything and didn’t want his clients to hear him admitting uncertainty), “Is it true that in hyenas, males and females are, you know…one?” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this question, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
While males and females are not, in fact, “one,” hyenas do have a definite physical peculiarity: the two sexes have nearly indistinguishable genitals. That’s right: female hyenas have “pseudopenises” - completely capable of erections – as well as “pseudoscrotums” made of fatty tissue. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…I told you they were weird.
In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d buy into this whole male=female thing too. Check out the hyena below…that, dear readers, is a female hyena in all her male-mimicking glory.
Imagine seeing that hyena nursing a cub or – stranger still – giving birth. That’s why, for millennia, people have thought that hyenas had both male and female organs, a biological phenomenon called hermaphrodism. This sexual ambiguity, popularized by writers from Ovid to Hemingway, has made hyenas the subject of confusion, fear, and mistrust.
While hermaphrodism may seem like material for freak shows and science fiction novels, it’s actually somewhat common in the animal world. Picture this (I liked Leslie's hypothetical "Carl" story, so here goes): you’re a female sea cucumber that lives on the ocean floor and rarely comes into contact with another sea cucumber. But, you'd really like to fulfill your biological destiny to mate before you die. You may wait days, weeks, or months to see another sea cucumber…so let’s hope it’s a male! OR you could be a hermaphrodite with the potential to be both male and female…that way, no matter who you run into, you’ll be able to fill the ocean with lots of adorable baby sea cucumbers.
However, hyenas certainly aren’t solitary, and they encounter members of the opposite sex dozens of times a day, so hermaphrodism wouldn’t be a real advantage here. Instead - despite all appearances - hyenas follow the standard mammalian pattern of having two distinct sexes: males and females. While scientists as far back as Aristotle have tried to clear up the confusion, their rational arguments have been drowned out by images of female hyenas’ uncanny “maleness.”
Of course, if you’re even slightly scientifically-minded, this brings up the obvious question: why do females have pseudopenises? Well, we're still working on ironing out the details of that one. If you've got a definitive answer, let me know, and I'll have a PhD in the bag.
Author: Andy Flies
I mentioned last week that hyenas have a trick up their sleeve that allows them to take advantage of a food source that is inaccessible to most animals. A few people posted comments right away and hit the nail on the head. Hyenas are actually capable of breaking bones into smaller pieces and eating them. They accomplish this by gripping the bone between their teeth and the then biting down with immense amount of force. After splitting the bone into smaller fragments, they simply gulp down the chunks of bone.
The advantage of eating bones is more obvious during periods when prey animals are scarce. Being able to crack open, swallow and digest bones gives hyenas access to nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus. I would consider this similar to digging to the bottom of the pantry or freezer when I haven't been to the grocery store for a long time. I am not going to find my favorite food in either place, but I will find something to eat in one of those places. Mothers nursing cubs may eat bones to get large amounts of calcium for milk production.
A couple of interesting side notes on the diet of a spotted hyena. Spotted hyenas get around 95% of their annual food intake from fresh ungulate kills. Eating bones can be an important supplement to a healthy diet, but eating fresh meat is of paramount importance. Reports exist of hyenas cracking and eating bones as large as giraffe femurs. In the photo below, James is holding three giraffe leg bones for perspective on the size of the bones. James is about five feet and nine inches tall, so that should give you some idea about the size of these bones and the strength of hyena jaws.
Most hyenas favor cracking bones on either the right or left side of their mouth. Instead of being right or left-handed, they are right or left-mouthed. Many animals worldwide exhibit some form of favoritism for one side over the other. There is only one other animal to my knowledge that regularly breaks open bones to eat the marrow, and that is the Lammergeier, also know as the bearded vulture. This vulture picks up bones in its mouth and flies into the sky. They then release the bones and drop them on rocks with the hope of breaking open the bone. It may take several tries before the bone actually breaks open, if it does at all. Much less efficient than the hyena method of using their massive jaw muscles to break open the bones.
Are you going to eat that?
Author: Andy Flies
We humans usually think of ourselves as pretty smart. One of the intelligent ideas ourancestors happened upon long ago, was the concept of cooking our food before we eat it. Many modern cultures place a good deal emphasis on cooking as a means to enrich the taste of the food. However, the overriding reason that cooking food has spread throughout human societies is that it is still the most effective way of killing microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protists) that would otherwise make us ill.
For those of us that love a good steak, we often prepare the steak rare or medium rare, meaning the steak is not cooked all the way through. This is a risk we are willing to take, since not cooking the meat completely leaves the door open for microbes that are able to tolerate high temperatures. Spicing up your favorite dish adds flavor that not only enhances dining experience, but is some cases may also provide antimicrobial activity. Wild animals do not have the option of cooking or adding antimicrobial spices to their meal. As a result, animals have evolved other means of dealing with potential pathogenic (disease causing) organisms.
Spotted hyenas seem to be particularly adept at dealing with microbes that would make you or I extremely sick. This is one of the main reasons I am interested in studying hyenas. Hyenas will eat just about anything, plants being a major exception. Members of the hyena research team have witnessed hyenas eat rotting carcasses that other animals refuse to eat. Many animals will routinely pass up a meal that is decaying, most likely because the risk of infection from the consumption of the decaying meat is high. This widespread behavioral adaptation is an effective method of avoiding dangerous infections. This behavior is so pervasive that some animals have actually developed an anti-predator strategy that includes playing dead, also know as "playing possum." The logic behind this is that if an animal keels over and dies right in front of you, it must be very sick, and thus would probably make you sick if you ate it.
If the behavior of avoiding rotting meat is an effective way of avoiding infection, why are hyenas so willing to eat it? The simplest answer, is that it provides them with an advantage over other animals when prey animals are in short supply. The wildebeest migration is currently in the Mara and food is plentiful. However, the wildebeests will soon migrate back to Tanzania and prey will become more scarce. As the food becomes more difficult to obtain, being able to eat leftovers can be very important for survival. Of course hyenas are not the only animals to take advantage of carcasses, vultures have nearly perfected the art of locating and consuming rotting meat. Hyenas have an additional trick up their sleeve to get nutrients out of a carcass that vultures do not. I will write about this in a future post. If anyone knows what this behavior may be, please feel free to post a comment or email me what you think it is.
Hyenas are one of the most effecient hunters on the African savanna, but they also take advantage of kills made by other animals and animals that have died of disease and/or starvation. This food source can mean the difference between life and death for an animal that cannot go to the grocery store or McDonald's when it is hungry. The drawback of taking advantage of this food source is that hyenas must be able to fend off harmful microbes in the food they eat. This can be done in many ways. I am particularly interested in finding out how the hyena immune system is able to withstand the inexhaustible onslaught of microbes that seeks to exploit them. Over the next 6 months I will continue to write about this topic. I hope some of the readers of this blog will contribute their own ideas as to why hyenas are so resilient to disease.
Hyena paws and teeth
As you can see from the picture, hyena paws are pretty massive (...although in the interest of full disclosure, I do have freakishly small hands).
Also, Kate wasn't kidding when she said hyenas have clean teeth—check out these pearly whites. As she mentioned, that's probably from all the bone they eat and chew. Compare them to the teeth of the male lion below—lions don't eat much bone at all, and this guy's teeth are noticeably more yellow because of it.
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.