Sunday, January 21, 2007

Hyena dissection

I got to help dissect a hyena today. Unbeknownst to many, Berkeley has a hyena colony. It was started two or three decades ago with ten spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Four or five of those founding members are still alive, but they're all in zoos now. However, 34 of their offspring are still here, in large and well-hidden outdoor facility that many long-time Berkeley residents and students know nothing about. It is easily the largest concentration of hyenas anywhere in the world outside of Africa. As Forrest Gump said, "That's all I got to say about that."

This hyena is a 15-year-old female named Kodiak. According to Walker's Mammals of the World, spotted hyenas have lived to the age of 41 in captivity in captivity, but in the wild many hyenas do not make it past their 15th birthday. So as hyenas go, Kodiak had had a long and happy life. Unfortunately, she developed a dental abscess that eventually caused her to stop eating, and she was euthanized. Other researchers had dibs on the brain and internal organs, so we got her brainless and eviscerated. It would have been cool to dissect the whole head--evidently hyenas have wacky big sinuses for carnivores--but beggars can't be choosers.

The beast came to us through the kind offices of my good friend Alan Shabel, who is in Tony Barnosky's lab and works on many aspects of African ecology, especially the paleoecology of robust australopithecines. Alan mainly wanted the bones, and we needed to get the animal torn down in a single day. The first step was to skin it. Above I am working with (l. to r.) Russ Dedon, Ashley Lipps, and Sally Pine. Ashley and Sally were also present for the rhea dissection, but Sally was sick and couldn't scrub in. This time she was feeling great and anxious to get her hands dirty.

Here the skin is coming off. There was a lot of subcutaneous and intermuscular fat, and some pretty thick fascia over the muscles as well.

This animal was just terrifyingly muscled. Put your hands on either side of your head and clench your jaw, like you're biting down on something. Those muscles you feel bulging on the sides of your head are your temporalis muscles, the primary jaw-closers. The temporalis muscles on this hyena were as big around as my wrists. Hyenas eat bone, literally chew it up, and they have the muscles and teeth to make that happen.

Above you can see the headless neck sticking out to the left. The neck was like a fifth limb, only larger and more heavily muscled than any of the rest. Honestly, this thing's neck was almost the size of one of my thighs. I've seen lots of dead dogs and cats, and I've never seen anything like it. It was like the neck of a small horse had been grafted onto the body of a large dog.

After we skinned the animal we started detaching limbs to speed up the skeletonizing process. Here fellow Padianites Randy Irmis and Sarah Werning are working on their respective chunks. Sarah was here for the rhea but Randy missed it, much to his chagrin. He was in Argentina at the time, chasing early dinosaurs. Probably a fair trade.

More piecemeal dissection: (l. to r.) Betsy Bamberger, Jeannie Bailey, and Alan working on limbs.

While the rest of us worked on the head or limbs, Russ and Sally defleshed the axial skeleton. It's a slow and thankless job, but they don't look too put out.

It's funny how the apparent size of an object changes depending on what you place it next to. This hyena leg looks a little more impressive in Sally's hands.

Alas, poor Kodiak. We knew her, readers. A bitch of infinite hunger, of most excellent construction; she hath devoured me in her imagination a thousand times; and now, how devoured in my imagination she is! My curiosity rises at it. Here hung those lips that have laughed at me I know not how oft. Where be your yelps now?

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Blogger Darren Naish said...

Awesome. Most of the stuff that's been discovered recently about spotted hyaenas comes from work on the Frank and Glickman Berkeley colony, and it never occurred me to ask if you knew of it. Apparently at least some of them are over-weight, however, which explains the stacks of fat we can see on Kodiak.

Lastly, where can I get a t-shirt like Randy's?

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those of you poor souls who don't know, my shirt is from the amazing film "Office Space". The shirt was a gift, but I believe it was purchased via the U.S. clothing and apparel store "Hot Topic". A quick search on their website suggests they no longer carry the shirt, but a Google search reveals that you can purchase your very own shirt on


11:04 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Wait, wait --

That's what Randy looks like? He must be, like, what, twelve?

Now I feel really humiliated by his vast string of publications.

Hey, Randy, you could at least grow a beard or something. Dye your hair grey. Make the rest of us feel a bit better.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey ... watch it fella ... you're lookin' at authentic Norwegian DNA. As any good scientist knows, the youthful traits are inherited. You should see his parents!
---- Donna and Ed Irmis

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So original! I haven't heard that one before. Hmmm, maybe as punishment I'll let your manuscript languish a bit more in the reviewer netherworld.


7:08 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

The dark side of PaleoBios revealed at last.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We had one of those hyenas at our zoo for many years. Awesome animal. Could consume 4 pounds of meat in 13 seconds! Have helped with vet procedures and necropsies on a variety of animals, including most recently, a comprehensive necropsy on an African lion. Very educational, and kind of an odd way to pay last respects to an old friend. We had a liger here as well, and would have loved to have recovered his skin and skeleton when he died (he and I were best friends, and I know he would have been honored to 'live on' in this way), but alas no one was allowed to recover anything from him.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Carma B said...


I randomly stumbled upon this entry. I found your whole autopsy to be really interesting. Your writing style is also entertaining to read. I appreciated the touch of poetry at the end. Thanks for this post!

9:52 PM  
Blogger Andrew Bourke said...

Thats amazing.......but erm....the hyenas sure seem to attract the babes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Seriously though, that really was interesting.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

That's what it's like in zoology/paleontology: studs and babes striding around purposefully, striking heroic poses, and doing awesome stuff. We're all unnaturally tall and good-looking, and our physical perfection is only exceeded by our intelligence and wit.

Join us!

8:19 AM  
Blogger Anne Weil said...

How does anyone in Berkeley not know about those hyenas? They are really noisy! Although I could understand confusing their "howl" with the noise made by stripping the gears on a car, I guess.

4:44 AM  

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