The Morphological Space of the Mara
November 27, 2007 — Masai Mara
Once we'd seen almost every major animal in the Mara, it was easier to take in everything as a whole and accept what came our way. The diversity of the Mara is unbelievable. It's incredible how animals have evolved to fill every niche. Giraffes have maxed out the morphological space of height in order to reach higher branches. Elephants and hippos are optimized for sheer size to make it hard for predators to take them down, and elephants have also maxed out nose length. Cheetahs are optimized for speed (at the expense of genetic diversity), lions are optimized for sheer strength and general prowess (at the expense of sleeping 20 hours a day). There are the browsers that compete for higher branches (elephants and giraffes), plenty of grazers (antelope, gazelles, etc.) and there are two distinctions depending on whether they nibble off the top, or clear all the way to the ground. And then there are those that forage below the ground for roots, like the warthog, or for specific insects, like the aardvark (which we haven't seen, and probably won't as they are nocturnal). With each of these comes the predators at the various levels, and then of course the array of scavengers that settle for sloppy seconds. It's amazing how it all fits together.
And what's more amazing is that this all goes on when we are not there to witness it. While we get up to go to work, lions are plotting a kill. You see all these things on TV or in books, but it's reassuring to see it for yourself, and to know that the ecosystem is thriving, for the most part. Of course it comes with the conflicted emotions of the inevitable impact of us being here. But in a sense the ecosystem of Masai Mara has evolved to include us as observers. Before it included humans as hunters which was destroying the ecosystem, but with people willing to pay money to see these animals, it creates an incentive to preserve them. It felt weird to drive off the roads through the grass, but then when you look, there are animal tracks everywhere, and jeep tracks are just another set. Even though almost every animal, the lions especially, didn't seem to even be aware of our presence, you have to wonder whether we were blowing their cover. If the buffalo were smart they'd see us stopping and be tipped off that we were watching the lions hunting them (which in one instance, caused the buffalo to charge the lions). I also wondered whether we might actually help the hunters by creating a distraction, or inadvertently scaring the wildebeest or antelopes in their direction.
One of the first things we saw on the third morning was a mother lioness with one-week old cubs. She had a den inside a bush, and there was another lioness outside the bush that the mother snapped at a few times.
Some other things we bore witness to, including a jackal, more lions giraffes.
After the game drive, we decided to just chill out for the afternoon by the pool. That evening at dinner some Masai guys came out and chanted and danced around. Their dancing consists of jumping, most of them not too impressive, though there was one guy who had at least a two-foot vertical leap. Our waiter said the highest jumper gets all the chicks.
(c) 2007 Derek White & Jessica Fanzo