Thursday, January 09, 2014

"Did you realize that 'gnu-dung' is a palindrome?" Or Hyenas' Bum Rap

I'm about halfway through Robert Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoirs. Nearby where Sapolsky's studying baboons in southwestern Kenya, Laurence of the Hyenas is studying hyenas.  At first Sapolsky
"had given him wide berth, as I was terrified of him.  He was a large hulking man with a tendency to sequester himself in his tent at length to bellow hideous stark Scottish folk dirges.  Even more unsettling, when perturbed or irritated, he had the unconscious habit of thrusting his chin and heavy dark beard at bothersome males in a manner than any primatologist instantly recognizes as a very legit dominance display." (p. 121)
But eventually, in the midst of thousands of migrating wildebeests* at Sapolsky's camp, Laurence appears with the gnu-dung question.  Sapolsky goes on,
"In fact, I had not.  The ice was broken.  In the twenty years since, he has taught me to bellow Scottish folk songs, made futile attempts to chip away at my ignorance about car engines, tended me during times of malarial attacks and failed experiments and homesickness.  He's the nearest thing I have to a big brother, and he's been damn good at it."  (p. 121)
It's a reminder that we shouldn't project personalities onto people we don't really know.  There are enough people in my life whom I've made wrong assumptions about at first, but eventually, we connected, they turned out to be different from what I assumed,  and we became good friends.  And a few weren't the good folks I thought they were.  But  I've learned that under whatever facade I'm seeing, there's a real human being and if I can connect to that person, things will be fine.  But that also includes no ulterior motives on my part and my willingness to give to that person as much as I get from them.

With Laurence and Robert, gnu-dung broke the ice.


Hyena screenshot from Marlin Perkins' Wild Kingdom
But I really wanted to get to the hyenas.

Another case of changing one's view of, in this case, a species.  This blog is about knowing and recognizing that we know a lot less than we think.  And a lot of what we know is just wrong, as in this example.   (Of course, we should take the new information with a grain of salt too.)
"Hyenas are neither canines nor felines and have doleful beautiful eyes, wet noses, and jaws that can snap off your arm in a second.  They also have gotten an utterly bum rap in the media.  We know all about hyenas:  it's dawn on the savanna, there's something big and dead with a lion feeding on it, and Marlin Perkins is up to his elbows in the gore, filming the scene.  You know the score.  Ol' Marlin is waxing poetic about the noble lion and his predatory skills, said king of the jungle, covered with his usual array of flies, is munching away at somebody's innards, and the camera will occasionally tear itself away from this tableau of carnivory to pan the edges.  And there they are, skulky, cowardly, dirty, snively, skeevy, no-account hyenas lurking at the periphery, trying to grab a piece of the vittles.  Marlin practically invites us to heap our contempt on the hyenas:  scavengers.  Now, it's not entirely clear to me why we laud the predators so much and so disdain the scavengers, since most of us are hardening our arteries wolfing down carcasses that someone else killed, but that is our bias.  Lions get lionized, while hyenas never get to vocalize at the beginning of MGM movies. (p. 122)
(He's having his fun with Perkins, but in the video from which I got the screenshot above Perkins says the hyena is a formidable hunter.)


We learn that a carnivology revolution occurred when the army unloaded some early generation night goggles on zoologists and they could now watch what happened at night.
"Redemption for the hyenas.  It turns out that they are fabulous hunters, working cooperatively, taking down beasties ten times** their size.  They have one of the highest percentages of successful hunts of any big carnivore.  And you know who has one of the worst?  Lions.  They're big, conspicuous, relatively slow.  It's much easier for them just to key in on cheetahs and hyenas and rip them off.  That's why all those hyenas are lurking around at dawn looking mealy and unphotogenic - they just spent the whole night hunting the damn thing and who's eating breakfast now?"   (p. 122)

*from National Geographic:   
The ungainly gnu earned the Afrikaans name wildebeest, or "wild beast," for the menacing appearance presented by its large head, shaggy mane, pointed beard, and sharp, curved horns. In fact, the wildebeest is better described as a reliable source of food for the truly menacing predators of the African savanna: lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and hyenas.
**Ten times their size?  Well I checked.  Adult hyenas weigh about 150-180 pounds (Wikipeda  and National Geographic differ.) An adult giraffe weighs 1800 (female) to 2600 (males) pounds.  But can a hyena kill a giraffe?  Yes, but only young ones says What Eats?  However, I did find a video and some posts that said hyena packs can kill cape buffalo and they weigh up to 1900 pounds. 

[This post, like the previous one seems to be having Feedburner problems.  I thought these had been overcome, but they are back.] 

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