February 2023

Rank amongst spotted hyenas

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Rank amongst spotted hyenas

While out on safari one stands a good chance of coming across the lonely figure of a spotted hyena as it disappears into the night looking for its next meal. Hyenas by no means have the best reputation and this is partly due to various documentaries and the ever famous “Lion King” where they are portrayed as the evil villain. While they are prolific scavengers, they are also extremely successful hunters and it is their social structure and interactions which I find the most fascinating.

Watching a clan of hyenas interact can be both interesting and quite comical at the same time, especially when you have the privilege of viewing such interactions take place between the cubs at a communal den-site. Den-sites offer an intimate view into spotted hyenas lives and it is often the cubs that steal the show, and so I thought I would delve a little into the general social structure of these amazing animals.

The spotted hyena is a gregarious species within which strong social groups (referred to as clans) are formed, consisting of a strict hierarchical system. Dominance within a clan is highly structured with rank being referred to as matrilineal rank, and acquisition of rank in hyena cubs referred to as matrilineal rank inheritance. Females are the more dominant of the two sexes where even the lowest ranking female outranks the highest-ranking male.

As males almost always leave their natal clan, the submissive behaviour observed is thought to be due to the males taking up immediate subordinate roles while integrating into a new clan. Females, however, usually remain within their natal clan often forming several multi-generational matrilines. I have often viewed adult males being slightly more active and research has shown that they move further distances than adult females, which is presumably in search of viable receptive females. The same goes for lower ranking females who tend to spend more time away from den-sites as a result of them needing to hunt/scavenge more due to kills being dominated by higher ranking females.

Cubs of both sexes take up rank directly below that of their mothers with rank among siblings of different ages being organized from oldest to youngest. Studies have found that rank inheritance among hyena cubs was not entirely driven by genetic heritability, as originally thought, but rather through maternal interventions. Adult female interventions are seen during aggressive cub behaviour directed towards their own offspring. Females also tend to intervene when individuals that are not their own offspring interfere with suckling or rest times, however this is only really observed with high-ranking females; lower ranking females avoid intervention. This all aids in their offspring learning who within the clan they can/cannot dominate. Strong competitive as well as co-operative bonds are seen in hyena cubs and mainly between cubs of the same litter. Usually, dominance between litter mates is already established before they emerge from their den two to four weeks after birth. It is quite often the case then that when littermates emerge from their den, they are of different sex as the male would have taken up a subordinate rank directly below that of his sister.

Same sex litters lead to extreme aggressive behaviour which often ends in the less dominant cub being killed. Cubs from around six months of age begin to challenge adult females who are of a lower rank than their mother and it is seen more often during agonistic coalition formations. Coalitionary formation and support is usually seen between hyenas of similar rank, individuals would therefore usually form coalitions with their own sibling littermates instead of with other non-sibling cubs. Coalitions are formed when cubs join together and express aggressive behaviour towards another individual who is not part of the coalition, these coalitions are also believed to aid in the cubs’ learning of their maternal rank.

Although there is so much more to know about these animals, hopefully if you’re lucky enough to find yourself at a den with this information in mind, it will help you appreciate these inquisitive and mischievous animals that much more. Time well spent at a den will certainly dispel any misconceptions of this species and change any negative outlook into a positive one!

Damin Dallas
By Damin Dallas
Assistant Head Guide