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A Second Look at Hyenas, Part 1

February 28, 2023

A Second Look at Hyenas, Part 1

- as seen by -

Natalie Cash Natalie Cash

Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are fascinating, complex animals and the largest of all hyena species. They are also the most common large carnivore on the African continent, like this female seen in the thorny undergrowth that blankets Kenya’s Laikipia Province.

My eyes had barely registered the flash of her ruffed coat as she ran past our research vehicle when suddenly, she stopped and turned back towards us to get a second look. It was at that moment I noticed the small cub traveling with her. She stared long enough for me to capture a few images, then quickly loped away, disappearing with her offspring as rapidly as she had appeared.

Perhaps she was hunting or perhaps she was moving the cub from its natal den to the community den of her clan. Like elephants, lions, orcas, and bees, hyenas live in matriarchal societies, with each clan led by an alpha female. Female hyenas also dictate the group’s social structure, with the highest-ranking male often subservient to the lowest-ranking female.

Indeed, a 2021 study by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania found that high-ranking female hyenas even pass their networks to their offspring, a revealing look into how social order is formed.

Using 27 years of detailed observations of hyena social interactions compiled by renowned biologist Kay E. Holekamp – commonly known as the “Jane Goodall of hyenas” – the Penn team was able to identify a pattern of social network inheritance and its implications for social structure, rank, and survival.

Erol Akçay, who co-authored the study with Holekamp and Amiyaal Ilany, says, “Things like this happen in human society as well. It happens so much we take it for granted. We inherit social connections, and there’s a lot of social science research that shows that this has a huge influence on people’s life trajectory.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: To celebrate Black History Month, Wild View is featuring posts by and about Black WCS staff members who play a vital role in the success of the organization. 

Read A Second Look at Hyenas, Part 2 here.


Laikipia Province, Africa Map It


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