The female hyena calls the shots

Friday January 21 2011

File | Nation Among the spotted hyena, like the one pictured, the female calls the shots in the communal household.

File | Nation Among the spotted hyena, like the one pictured, the female calls the shots in the communal household.  

By Gatonye Gathura [email protected]

Popular folklore has it that a foolish hyena once went home to beat up his wife, while the clever hare only kicked at a drum. Science now shows that this was a most unlikely scenario. Male hyenas should never to try this at home.

Studies in the Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Shampole areas of Magadi Soda have long established that among the much maligned hyena, and in particular the spotted one called crocuta crocuta, the female actually calls the shots in the communal household.

The female is bigger and more aggressive, and not only decides on who eats the best parts of a kill but also which male mates with her.

“Female spotted hyenas are surprisingly ‘masculine’ in their behaviour and appearance,” writes Prof Kay Holekamp from the Michigan State University of her research in the Maasai Mara.

“Unlike most other mammals, female hyenas are substantially more aggressive than males and they also are about 10 percent larger than males.”

These facts on their own would be enough to expose the hyena wife-beating tale as a Kenyan male chauvinistic prank.

On a positive note, however, it also shows that the traditional Kenyan wife-beating male was no hero in the community.

Now, more evidence is coming to the fore that only a suicidal male hyena would have tried such an adventure just to prove a point to a drinking buddy.

“Of course he was foolish, that was why he was outwitted by the hare,” the story teller would defend the folklore.

But, according to the new study published last month in the journal Animal Behaviour, the issue would not have ended there.

The study, carried out in the Maasai Mara, shows that posed with a threat such as an enemy predator or a hunting trip, the female hyenas will quickly call for reinforcement from other females and make mincemeat of even of a lion.

Calling for reinforcement, as the researchers observed in their 18-year study of the spotted hyena in Kenya and Tanzania, would involve an elaborate greeting ceremony.

The coming together, the researchers write in their paper, involves intimate sniffling and greetings which involve their elongated female genitalia.

Gathering support

The team says it has since found that this excitement and the subsequent ceremonious sniffing were a way for the animals to gather support.
“We saw them engage in these greeting ceremonies and then form a coalition to mob a lion,” Holekamp told BBC recently.

“Trying to scare away another top predator in this way is very risky, and the greetings appear to get all the animals on the same emotional plain,” she said.

This is well understood through the behaviour of footballers who, for some reason, come together into a solemn circle in the middle of a game for bonding and rejuvenation. A kind of hi-five.

It is not clear which of the two mammals, hyena or man, learnt this behaviour from the other.

But being a survival mechanism for the hyena and a recreational gimmick for man, the later may owe the spotted colleague some credit.

The latest study led by Jennifer Smith from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), investigated female spotted hyenas, in a large female-dominated social group in the Maasai Mara.

Because of high competition for food, say the research, the animals will always separate to hunt but come together when they need to form a coalition to defend their territory or to go hunting.

One reason for the studies is to understand the animal and generate enough information to convince communities that this much maligned animal is useful and worthy to be conserved.