Monday, July 28, 2008

Dominant and Subordinate Cubs

Spotted hyena cubs are usually born in pairs, although singletons and triplets are not unheard of. One cub will immediately assert itself as the dominant cub, and if the cubs are of different sexes, this is usually the female. This dominant cub—which will remain dominant to its sibling for the rest of its life—enjoys many privileges. One particularly notable privilege that manifests early in life is that the dominant cub gets to nurse “in the preferred position.” An adult female has two teats, and the cub nursing in the preferred position lies closer to her head. The mother will often drape her front paw over this dominant cub, and even groom it as it nurses. The subordinate cub is relegated to the back, lying either between the mother’s hind legs or behind her entirely. Unfortunately for the subordinate cub, the benefits of nursing in the preferred position extend beyond cuddles and a bath: the dominant cub is often able to limit the subordinate cub's access to the teats. The result of this disparity is that the dominant cub grows more quickly than the subordinate cub—a significant difference when trying to survive in the savannah.

Important life lesson: try to be the dominant cub.

Photo: Pictured above are Ursa, an adult female, and her two cubs, Muffin and Macaroon (Ursa's lineage theme is “things found in a bakery”). You can see Muffin, the dominant cub, with its back to the camera, Ursa’s front leg wrapped around it. The subordinate cub, Macaroon, is that dark lump in the back under Ursa’s hind leg.

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