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/