Hyenas learning the ropes together

While I’m not a fan of keeping hyenas in captivity, I’m happy to describe the results from studies of captive hyenas if they make for good hyena PR. And this study is a peach. Did you know that while chimps are pretty good at problem solving, they need lots of teaching to be able to solve problems cooperatively? Well, step aside chimps because it turns out that hyenas are the doyens of cooperative problem solving. The folks at University of California, Berkeley, decided to test the abilities of their captive hyenas in solving a food acquisition task. The task? A hidden food reward suspended on a platform that could be released by pulling on a rope.

In the first trial, three adolescent, male hyenas were introduced to the task individually. It didn’t take them long to try puling on the rope, even though they couldn’t see the food, and they solved the problem with a 100% success rate. In the second trial, hyenas were introduced to the apparatus in pairs and groups of four. Where a single rope was enough to release the food, experienced hyenas waited until their partner was away from the drop site before pulling on the rope. Where two ropes had to be pulled simultaneously to release the food, experienced hyenas pulled on ropes more often when their partner was nearby. Where they were least successful was when there was a big difference in rank. Apparently there is not much motivation for a low ranking hyena to co-operate with a very high ranking individual.

Now here is the really interesting bit: when an experienced hyena was tested with a naive partner and the task required simultaneous pulling of two ropes, the experienced hyena monitored the naive one and assumed a follower role. In trials where there were two platforms with two ropes each, the experienced hyena followed the naive hyena’s lead and co-operated with them at whichever platform they were at. But then, after the naive hyena had learned the ropes so to speak, the roles were reversed and the experienced, higher ranking hyena took the lead. As I said, this trumps the results of chimps who have to be taught to co-operate.

What does this say about us humans? For me, it raises the possibility that our own capacity for cooperative problem solving evolved out there on the savannah in the kind of conditions only social scavenger/hunters can experience. What’s more, it suggests that we did so in competition with another adept, co-operator – one far more adept than our simian cousins – the spotted hyena.

Image by Christine Drea, sourced from: http://animalsdontthink.com/2009/12/30/but-they-use-teamwork-to-achieve-shared-goals/


3 thoughts on “Hyenas learning the ropes together

  1. Hello, I currently own a hyena and a white lion that stay in the enclosure together and i have noticed that when it is feeding time the lion goes crazy and run by the fence waiting for the food and the hyena just sit down by the gate and wait for its food. Also the way the hyena manage to sneak off with the good pieces of meat just in front of the lions nose is quite impressive!
    So yes these animals have a lot of problem solving skill programed in their head 🙂

  2. Hi!

    This is my very first comment here. First and foremost, I’d like to say I love this blog. Places on the internet where you can learn about hyenas from such an intimate perspective are woefully few.

    So, I’ve discovered my love for hyenas some months ago, sometime back before Christmas, I believe.Of course, I can’t really assign a specific point in time to this discovery; hyenas have been on my mind for quite a long time, it was after re-experiencing an important part of my childhood (it would seem more important than I could have ever known at the time) that I seriously started looking into them. Ironically enough, this was none other than the film almost single-handedly responsible for the bad PR of hyenas among newer generations and the popular imagination: I’m talking, of course, about The Lion King.

    I re-watched it after well over a decade of having last seen it, and when the hyena trio made their appearance, I was captivated. I always did like them even as a kid, but now I barely noticed any of the other characters whenever they were in a scene. This having kindled an interest in me for hyenas in general, I went on a little research spree about them, and that was it. I’m in love. Whenever I see a well-timed photo of a spotted hyena, I can’t help thinking, ‘Oh my god, how can so few see the beauty of this delightful creature? Just look at them!’

    Even though I’m not the most spiritual person around, hyenas have managed to touch something deep within me. They make me feel a longing for the wild and untamed I didn’t know I had. Make no mistake though, I do not, by any means see them as some kind of abstract symbol only; I feel very much attracted to flesh and blood hyenas themselves; their habits, their way of life, their playfulness, their loyalty. Back in my early childhood, it was my ambition to become a biologist. Of course, life often doesn’t go the way we envision, and I’ve ended up majoring in Japanese, a field which I do enjoy and do find rewarding, but still doesn’t satisfy all of my innermost desires.

    By the way, I’ve been directed here by fellow hyena advocate and author Mikita Brottman, whom I had the luck to come into contact with over the course of my research spree, when I asked her the same question I’m about to ask you: do you think there is any way I, not being in the field, could somehow get a chance to work with hyenas? This has become one of my major goals in life, and I greatly appreciate any help in getting started. Now, when it comes to life dreams over life goals, I dream even bigger; I’ve only dared hint at this to my immediate surroundings, as I think my family would be quite alarmed if they thought I was serious about this, but my silliest, most over-the-top ambition is to raise a whole clan of spotted hyenas by myself and live with them :3 (needless to say I don’t expect you to give me tips on that, I just mention it to show how much this means to me).

    In any case, thank you for maintaining this little oasis on the internet where hyena lovers like myself can read about wonderful, first-hand experiences with hyenas, and discuss our fondness for them.

    (Sorry about this comment not having much to do with the post, but it’s my first, so I just wanted to tell you about why I’m here and why I’m grateful for your work on this blog. Keep it up!)

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