The usual method that researchers use to recognise individual hyenas is their distinctive spot patterns. In the Masai Mara, the researchers from MSU use thick folders full of left/right profile photos of individual, named hyenas, which are categorised according to sex, age, and immigrant status. When a researcher there spots a hyena who she doesn’t recognise immediately, she thumbs through the folder, looking a photo of a hyena with a similar spot pattern.
In Harar, it’s really not practical to carry a folder full of photos around when you’re doing hyena reserach on foot. For anyone other than Doctor Octopus, it’s enough of a challenge to hold onto a camera, voice recorder, flashlight, nightvision scope, and notebook while keeping one hand free to stop your fall when you stumble in a drainage lane running with effluent. And besides it often really hard to get a good look at the hyenas’ spotty profiles when they’re walking ahead of you in a narrow lane.
One alternative method for recognising hyenas is to memorise the spot patterns just above their tails and the notches in their ears so that you can recognise individuals from front and rear. Although not all hyenas have notches in their ears. Another method, and one which I inadvertently ended up using in Harar, is to note the individual hyena’s relationship to persons and things in her environment.
For instance, Baby was easy to recognise because she often stood behind Yusuf, and Willi was often lying down beside the canal beside the feeding place. So from hundreds of metres away I could make an identification of those hyenas with 95% confidence because of the places they frequented and the people to whom they stood in relation. And as for Tukwondilli, he was usually hovering around Dibbey, so once I identified her, I could be pretty sure the nervous, skinny male running circles around her was Tukwondilli.
This brings me to an article published by Kevin Theis a couple of years ago which demonstrated how colonies of fermentive bacteria in hyenas’ anal glands varied in composition, and this corresponded to variation in hyenas’ scents. This suggests that group specific scents of hyenas are mediated by the bacteria. What’s more, hyenas are probably informed about sex and reproductive states of others by reconising the variations in scents that the bacteia are responsible for. I would go further and say that these scents also vary by individual based on variations in bacterial compositions.
Why is this relevant? Because it shows that hyenas’ identities are not limited to their DNA, spot patterns or even their bodies. A hyena person is a coming together of relations not just between hyena bodies and other hyenas, people and places in the landscape, but also between all of the above and fermentive bacteria which mediate the distinctive scents of individuals that other hyenas find so interesting. Of course it’s never going to be pratcical to identify hyenas in Jugol by the microscopic bacteria riding on their bottoms but it opens up some interesting ideas about what constitutes identity in humans and other animals.
Willi and his bacteria wiping some scent onto a blade of grass