Cooperation in Spotted Hyenas

PhysOrg.Com has an interesting item on problem solving and cooperation in spotted hyenas. The item concerns recent research published in Animal Behavior. From PhysOrg.Com:

Drea’s research, published online in the October issue of Animal Behavior, shows that social carnivores like spotted hyenas that hunt in packs may be good models for investigating cooperative problem solving and the evolution of social intelligence. She performed these experiments in the mid-1990s but struggled to find a journal that was interested in non-primate social cognition.

Apparently, Drea conducted a series of experiments modeled after hyena group hunting strategies. Results were quite interesting, for example:

Drea and Carter studied the actions of 13 combinations of hyena pairs and found that they synchronized their timing on the ropes, revealing that the animals understood the ropes must be tugged in unison. They also showed that they understood both ropes had to be on the same platform. After an animal was experienced, the number of times it pulled on a rope without its partner present dropped sharply, indicating the animal understood its partner’s role.

“One thing that was different about the captive hyena’s behavior was that these problems were solved largely in silence,” Drea said. Their non-verbal communication included matching gazes and following one another. “In the wild, they use a vocalization called a whoop when they are hunting together.”

PhysOrg mentions that hyenas performed better at these types of test than primates – which doesn’t surprise me since these tests seem to measure lifestyle specific behavior. The example above was modeled after bringing down large prey. Hyena sociality is a different type of sociality than that of canines and that of primates and requires a different set of cognitive abilities and social smarts.

“But I did find it somewhat surprising that the hyenas’ performance was socially modulated by both party size and pair membership,” Holekamp said. “And I found it particularly intriguing that the animals were sensitive to the naiveté of their potential collaborators.”

Researchers have focused on primates for decades with an assumption that higher cognitive functioning in large-brained animals should enable organized teamwork. But Drea’s study demonstrates that social carnivores, including dogs, may be very good at cooperative problem solving, even though their brains are comparatively smaller.

“I’m not saying that spotted hyenas are smarter than chimps,” Drea said. “I’m saying that these experiments show that they are more hard-wired for social cooperation than chimpanzees.”

Food for thought…

The research the PhysOrg.Com article was based on can be found here – subscription required.

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