Girl Power – why do female spotted hyenas rule the pack?

Sex and rank makes all the difference in the complex lives of these African carnivores.


Spotted hyenas are known to have complicated social systems, however scientists from Michigan State University have discovered that these systems may be even more intricate than originally thought.


A study of a group in the Masai Mara, Kenya has discovered that spotted hyenas practise a group dynamic that rivals the complexity of many primate species.

The sex and rank of the individual can have a huge impact on how their social connections develop as they age.

“Young female hyenas developed more complex network positions than males, and their positions were dependent on their social rank in the clan,” says Julie Turner, lead author at Michigan State University.

“Males generally disengaged from interacting with others as they matured, which is appropriate, as they usually need to move to another clan to enjoy mating opportunities.”

Life as a male hyena is not such a laughing matter, because although spotted hyena society is acknowledged as the most social of all carnivores, it is also matriarchal. The larger females, which have a pseudo-penis, dominate the males.

Group living is also highly competitive, not co-operative, with feeding and mating rights being given exclusively to those who can over-power their counterparts. Females also provide strictly for their own cubs, and males provide no paternal care.

Young hyenas are cared for by their mothers. © Julie Turner

Hyenas, which can live up to 22 years, typically live in large, stable groups known as clans, which can consist of over 100 individuals.

Females can afford to be choosier in their social relationships because of their higher ranking. They also remain in the same clan for their entire life, so will have a greater understanding of the clan’s social environment.

On the other hand, males frequently disperse into new clans, so automatically become the lowest ranking member. It is more beneficial for them to follow stricter rules when making friends.

Although long-term studies on animal group interactions are challenging, understanding why and how they form lasting relationships helps scientists gain a deeper understanding of social cooperation in mammals.

Read the paper in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.


Main image: Spotted hyenas have intricate social relationships. © Julie Turner