Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sweet, Destroyer of Worlds

Hey folks,

            I wanted to introduce everyone to my favorite hyena, Sweet. Sweet is a young male just barely out of the black cub stage, but he already has the gumption of a full-grown female. Sweet the Hyena Cub lost the first fight of his life, for intra-litter dominance, to his brother Tangy. That defeat was the day Sweet the Destroyer was born. Sweet remembers, my friends. His mission ever since: to never lose again. Being the less dominant of the two, Sweet is much smaller than his brother and his spots haven’t fully come in yet. Despite this, he is pound for pound the most ferocious hyena I have met out here.


Above is Sweet gaining the upper hand in play with his larger brother Tangy.

            Never ask Sweet why he doesn’t nurse in preferred position or why he doesn’t nurse that often in general. If you manage to commit this faux pas, he’ll tell you he’s simply giving the other cubs a fighting chance on the field of battle, or that he has little interest in mortal needs like milk. But the real answer is that he’s still fuming over his prior defeat. Having been denied the better nipple for the duration of his short life, Sweet opts to take his vehemence out on every hyena that comes within hunting distance. Sweet is the first hyena to chase away the pesky adult males that hang around the den. They are eight times his size, yet lack the ability to fight off this scrappy cub. Inevitably the males will choose not to face Sweet’s one man army, and will slink off into the distance. 

            Sweet’s wrath is not limited to males, he also chases away lower ranking females. One day Rangsang, Palazzo, Sea Biscuit, and Cheese Whiz were all groaning over the den and greeting. Like an old man frustrated with the teenagers hanging out on his lawn, Sweet came barreling out of the den growling – causing all these adult females to back off the den excitedly, reminding them who is the real boss at the South communal den.


Here is a video of Sweet beating up on Belgian Tervuran, a subadult male. Despite the size difference, TERV acts submissively towards Sweet (probably a good idea).

            An avid play wrestler, Sweet is always starting fights with his playmates. Sweet is much smaller than all the cubs in the South clan, besides Sonic screwdriver (a black cub three months his junior). He doesn’t let size get in the way however, and will play mount any opponent he deems unworthy. As he is the seventh highest ranking hyena, this means he gets to beat up on a lot of other hyenas (61 to be exact). South den sessions have become my favorite, as I know that I will get to see Sweet the destroyer win another of his daily battles. 

Fellow cubs are not safe from Sweet’s fury, they must be on high alert from an attack that can come at any moment! 

            I will never get sick of the sight of this tiny guy going bristle tailed with excitement and running pell-mell after grown hyenas, and I can’t wait to see the audacious adult he becomes. Who knows, he may become the first dominant male hyena (until he immigrates).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Clan Wars

If you have read this blog before, you're aware that spotted hyenas are extremely social creatures. A group of hyenas forms a clan, with whom they socialize, hunt, and mate. But how do we as researchers know which hyena is in which clan? And how can we draw the borders between clans when we can't actually talk to these animals?

The answer is Clan Wars.

A clan war is when two hyena clans duke it out, usually over a carcass or a disputed border. The hyena version of a war involves gathering a clan and running towards the rival clan, chasing them away from the object in contention. The clans chase each other back and forth several times, and then one clan retreats, the other declaring victory. It can get violent, with hyenas harming and even killing those in rival clans. Clan wars over territory let us draw borders between territories and figure out who is in which clan, even for individuals who we don't see all that often.

The Serena camp witnessed one of these rare events on the morning of July 7 over a zebra carcass. We were doing obs at the North communal den when Waffles (WAFL), the matriarch of North, arrived carrying half a zebra.  This was our first clue that something was up. Later that morning we tracked Raleigh (RALI) about 200m west of the den, where we were in for a surprise.

There were a bunch of Happy Zebra hyenas eating the other half of the zebra. The carcass was definitely in North territory, which meant that Happy Zebra was very obviously trespassing, and given their behavior, they knew it. Everyone was looking towards the den where the North hyenas were located.

Happy Zebra looking towards North.
Two North males, Raleigh and Pondicherry (PNDI), tried to run the Happy Zebra clan off the carcass, but were not successful. 
Raleigh and Pondicherry feed on the carcass until Happy Zebra takes the carcass back.

Eventually, several more North hyenas showed up, and it became a proper clan war. 
North clan runs off Happy Zebra.

North ran at Happy Zebra, and Happy Zebra ran at North. Hyenas on both sides were bristle-tail social sniffing, and it got tricky to keep track of who was who in the tall grass.

Happy Zebra charges at North, then North charges at happy Zebra, then Happy Zebra charges at North again.
Happy Zebra eventually retreated away, and North took possession of the carcass. Eight individuals ate and wandered around the carcass. Raleigh and Pondicherry were still there, hanging at the edges of the gathering and being chased by females if they got too close. Katana (KATA), another male, was slightly more tolerated, and was permitted to eat at the carcass. After a while most of the hyenas laid down in the grass to sleep off the morning's excitement, and we left the scene to find our next hyena hijinks.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Hyena action shots!!

This might surprise you guys but I actually don’t have too many hyena behavior shots. There is just so much going on in the cars while we are observing that it can be impossible to take photos. But every once in a while when I do manage to get a photograph they turn out to be really spectacular. For this post I thought I would share a few of my favorite photos that I took and explain a little of the behavior behind them.


Hyenas say hello by sniffing each other's phalluses. This might seem weird until you consider how often your dog has their nose in another dog's anus. A greet consists of two hyenas each lifting their leg so that the other can sniff their phallus. 

Bristle Tail:

A bristle tail is a behavior associated with excitement. The tail flips up and fans out to look like bristles. We see them when hyenas are on a carcass, chasing away intruders, patrolling their borders, and in a number of other situations. 

Groan Over:

When a hyena wants to show friendly interest in another hyena, they groan. A lot of times this type of interest is shown to cubs. Here is a picture of one hyena groaning over a cub while it nurses from its mom. I've also attached a recording of a groan (although not the groan from this day).

Play Mount:

Cubs will often jump on each other's backs while playing. Based on a 2007 paper by Tanner, Smale, and Holekamp, male cubs play mount significantly more often than female cubs. This suggests that play mounting is a way to practice mating. 

Play Biting:

Another specific play behavior that we record is play biting. This can appear to be really violent but everyone is just having fun! Probably.


Cubs do this when their mothers are weening them. It's like a little hyena temper tantrum. They pull this strange face and make a truly atrocious noise. Here's a photo and a recording.


Seeing a mating is pretty rare but I was lucky enough to see one! Hyena matings are complicated by the female phallus. A male hyena has to insert his phallus into the female's phallus while balancing on his back legs! It looks like quite the glute workout, honestly.

Ears back and Grin:

Here is two behaviors in one! Both of these are submissive behaviors and in this case were performed in response to an aggression. This hyena is a potential immigrant male being chased off by a few settled immigrants. He is grinning with his ears pinned back next to his head, showing that he is submissive to his attackers. His appeasements didn't move the aggressors and this little guy took a serious beating!

 Lunge and Snap:

This one doesn't need a whole lot of explanation. The hyena on the left lunged and snapped at the hyena in the middle. But incase anyone was worried, the hyena in the middle got his face out of the way just in time. 


Michigan State University | College of Natural Science