Tag Archives: Dead elephants

A Killer Bite

When I cracked open the fresh binding on my senior yearbook an eon ago, I came face to face with the infamous superlatives list, bestowed (wittingly or unwittingly) upon various graduating members of our senior class.  Nicest Eyes, Best Dressed, Most Likely to Open a Gas Station… the list was thoughtfully crafted.

After a few days in Africa observing living animals and taking data off the dead, it occurred to me that if there is one animal in Africa that deserves the award for Best Bite, it’s unequivocally the hyena.

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A killer smile? (c) Arno & Louise Wildlife.

The hyena gest this honor, not because it has the strongest bite—that record goes to another African native, the crocodile—but because it is an equal opportunity lender of mandibular destruction.  Or to put it another way, a hyena doesn’t particularly care what it lends its jaws to.  A hyena is no gourmand.

Time and time again, we found evidence of hyena feeding.  It got to the point that when we approached a carcass the first thing that would run through our mind was: lets see what the hyenas left us this time… But the truth is, it was awe inspiring to see the damage hyenas are capable of inflicting with their teeth.

On every skeleton we found places where hyenas had gnawed off thin parts of bones entirely, such as the shoulder blade or hipbones.

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Hyenas love to chomp on thin bones. Check out the tooth marks on this elephant shoulder blade.

They also appeared to be fond of chewing off the faces of elephant skulls.

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The face on this elephant skull has been chewed off by hyenas.

We even found scat (droppings if you prefer) containing small bones that were swallowed whole by hyenas.

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Hyena scat contains whole bones and turtle shell.  Who needs to chew?

By far the wickedest evidence of hyena feeding was a turtle skeleton we stumbled across in the Kazakini area.  The hyena had taken a young female leopard tortoise up in its jaws and bitten half of it clean off, right through the shell, no finesse required.

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This female leopard tortoise had a bad day.

After all that, I thought I had a handle on the wreckage inflicted by the hyenas.  Boy was I wrong.  Laying in our tent one night I was startled awake by series of hideous sounds—the deep, desperate howls of a large antelope in its death throws overprinted by the frantic, murderous yips and cries of a whole pack of hyenas echoing like a twisted symphony across the grassland.  Then suddenly like the fall of a black curtain, there was only dead silence.  It was enough to make your blood run cold.

Next day we followed the footprints of the successful pack as they walked 50 feet from our campsite.  For a moment the thought of following them to the kill site swept through my mind, but it was quickly followed by the memory of lunatic laughter.

I quickly came to realize I preferred studying the more distant aftermath of the hyena.  Perhaps some things are best left to the cover of night.

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Dead Elephants REALLY Stink!

When Bucky asked me if I wanted to start a research project in the Okavango Delta in Botswana I was totally gung-ho.

I figured we’d be driving around on safari gazing through our binoculars at spectacular wildlife and documenting the incredible interplay of species struggling for survival in the African wetlands with our keen “super-scientist” powers of observation.

Then I remembered… we study dead things.

“What exactly are we going to be doing?”  I asked, not really sure that I wanted to know the answer.

“Walking around looking for animal carcasses…”  came the unfortunate reply.

“Of course,” I grumbled.

Now to be fair as a vertebrate paleontologist, I am used to studying skeletons… it’s just that, well, the animals have usually been dead for tens or hundreds of millions of years, so the “gross” factor isn’t really an issue.  Even when I taught gross anatomy to med students, the cadavers were (thankfully) embalmed.  To put it mildly, Botswana was a bit different.

A field of elephant carcasses outside Sankuyo

Our first stop?  An dumping ground with one dozen, I repeat, one dozen, fresh elephant carcasses baking in the hot African sun. (Thanks Bucky).  Now you might ask, what might one dozen fresh elephant carcasses be doing in one spot?  And that would be a fair question.  I certainly wanted to know.  Turns out that the government allots the local community here a certain number of permits for the hunting of elephants.  In the Sankuyo Community this year that number was around two dozen.  And this?  This is where they compile the aftermath.

As a scientist, I generally take a matter of fact approach to data collection and I’m no neophyte when it comes to flesh and bone.  So I was surprised to find myself suddenly surveying the morbid scene splayed out in front of me with a heavy heart.  Having only seen elephants in the wild a few times in my life, they still held a certain majesty to me—an almost ethereal beauty—and it was hard to imagine a good reason for  this loss of life.  Later, in taking to the wildlife officer we learned that after the hunters flew home with their trophies (nearly all Americans and Europeans on the record books), the Community Trust distributes the elephant meat to feed the families within their care.  (We’ll post more about this controversial and difficult topic later).

Sometimes the hardest part about being a scientist, is sticking to the data… but stick to the data we did.

Taking data on the elephant carcasses.

After collecting our data on decomposition, predation and bite marks by hyenas, area of scatter, and  so on, we paid reverence to the fallen elephants and headed off to find carcasses of animals that had died in the wild.  Just as we were packing up to head out we witnessed a fleeting moment of beauty on one of the elephants, a Foxy Charaxes butterfly.  We snapped a few photos for a colleague at NC State University who studies butterflies and went on our way.

A moment of beauty lifts the mood.

As I climbed into the vehicle, my science-self was grateful for the reminder: in the natural world, death begets life.

In Africa, such reminders are not in short supply.

Time to Test the Field Vehicles…

Expedition Botswana June 23 – July 8 2012

Last month, Expedition Live! launched its first digital expedition—to Botswana.

The goal of this trip was to survey field localities for a long term study on animal carcasses and decomposition. But it is always wise to test *cough, cough* your field vehicle’s capabilities pronto to make sure they are up to par.  (Who said science is boring?!)

Here we kick off our blog series on Expedition Botswana 2012 with a few of our favorite driving moments.

Big surprise… Third Bridge in Moremi Game Reserve is down again.  Time to test our 4×4’s field readiness.

Bridge?!  Who needs a stinkin’ bridge?!  Watch Dr. Z go mono y mono with the Khwai River.

Sand.  Its smooth as silk to drive on.  Except when it is three feet deep, 30 kilometers long, and washboarded to all heck… but who’s complaining?

Can’t get enough sand? Apparently, neither could we (even if we wanted to).  Here we are on route to Nxai Pan.