The raid and the secret weapon

This is a guest post from Eli Strauss, a PhD student in the Zoology department at Michigan State University. He is interested in the evolution of sociality and the causes and consequences of variation in social system structure. Eli plans to compare the social behavior of hyenas in and around Harar with hyenas located in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya.

Even before the raid it had been an interesting night. A steady stream of people and hyenas had come and gone, each leaving satisfied with the fruits of the evening. Koti had made her first appearance in over a week, strutting about the place like the alpha she is. Abbas had even gotten some of the hyenas to chomp down on the steak-shaped squeaky toy that Marcus brought from Australia, although they seemed a bit betrayed to discover it wasn’t food. After the first set of hyenas had left, a few latecomers had come, including a one-and-a-half year old sub-adult making its first foray to the feeding site.

4x6Edit_20130516_Everly_Harar_HyenaFeeding244Abbas and the squeaky steak. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Everly.

When the Aboker hyenas descended, the four latecomers, led by a square-faced female named Botole, were staring longingly at the last piece of meat lying on the ground. She wanted it real bad, but it was just a bit too close to people for her comfort. Suddenly, they all looked up, growling with tails bristled.

Then, chaos.

Where there were four hyenas a second ago, hyenas were now running every which-way. From south along the road to Suqutatberi their came the sound of hyenas lowing in unison, marking the center of the conflict. I rushed over, but there was nothing to be seen. As soon as it had begun, the raid was over.

Hearing groans from the hill by the feeding place, I walked over to find eight Aboker hyenas, including five huge females, reveling in their victory. Tails held high, the females marched up the hill to the Sofi latrine site that marks the feeding place as Sofi property. There the conquering females sniffed intently about and enthusiastically pawed the ground, depositing scent chemicals from the interdigital glands between their toes.  Finally, like an army raising their flag over a recently won battlefield, the Aboker hyenas began whooping.

A hyena’s whoop carries a lot of information, and it carries far.  From the top of the hill, the Aboker hyenas were sending a resounding message that was certainly heard loud and clear by the Sofi hyenas at the dump: Aboker hyenas had taken the feeding site.

We waited for a while for the Sofi counter attack. Having seen the dump at night, I knew that there must have been at least twenty Sofi hyenas that heard those Aboker whoops.  Where were Koti, Gurra Murra, Jaagi, Botole, Eegey, Duleti, or any of the other big Sofi females? Many of them had been there earlier that night. Nevertheless, the response from the Sofi hyenas that I expected was not forthcoming. Which isn’t to say the Sofi feeding place went undefended.

Armed with the steak-shaped squeaky toy, Abbas walked to the top of the hill and made that steak sing. The Aboker hyenas jumped, visibly unnerved by the sound. He worked his way down the hill, vigorously squeaking the steak and sending the Aboker hyenas into a startled frenzy.  They watched anxiously as Abbas whistled the same whistle he uses early in the evenings to attract Sofi hyenas to the feeding site. He was calling for reinforcements.

Despite Abbas’ efforts, the Sofi clan never showed. The Aboker hyenas again settled on the hill, and again Abbas drove them off with the squeaky steak. This time, the invaders dispersed, some back towards Argoberi and their territory, others towards Suqutatberi, further into Sofi territory. Relinquishing the steak, Abbas retired to his home.

I stayed another half an hour, thinking about the night’s events and waiting for any further developments. When I finally left, there was one Aboker hyena rummaging through the dumpster behind Abbas’ house. The last piece of meat lay forgotten on the ground.

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