Monday, February 28, 2011

Hierarchy, interrupted?

RBC is the current (?) alpha female of North clan. She's a tough girl alright, when she has to be, but her personality leaves much to be desired. I can't tell you how many times I've been at a den, struggled to keep up with all the hustle and bustle that usually accompanies den sessions with lots of cubs, but had this one, oddball hyena sacked out (usually deep in tall grass and covered in mud) that didn't move an inch the entire time. Take a quick look at her ear and, sure enough, it's RBC. She's the hyena that doesn't even put her head up when 5 other females lope away from the den, whooping like crazy. Her cub will be 'wrongfully' aggressed on by other, lower-ranking cubs and she just chills out. For some unknown reason, she just can't be bothered.

DIGS is the current (?) #7 female of North clan. During my short 7-month tenure, she's been somewhat of a transient hyena. We would see her often-ish at the communal den, usually sacked out and nursing her cub (who is now a subadult), SANA. She never seemed to be in the center of activity, but she was never the loner at her own exclusive den, either. It wasn't shocking to see her at the dens with everyone else, but it also wasn't shocking when she would go missing for a week or more.

Both of these ladies made a contribution to the baby boom of late. TYPH (Typhoon, RBC's cub) is almost 4 months old and seems to be doing well. MARI (Mariana, DIGS' cub) is almost 2 months old and also seems to be growing steadily.

Just a couple of weeks ago I witnessed - what I believe to be - a pretty extraordinary event. I showed up at one of the communal dens to find RBC bleeding from fresh puncture wounds on the left side of her belly. She also had a little blood coming out of her mouth. She seemed to be just fine walking around, but I could tell it was uncomfortable for her to sack out.

I was surprised to see her up and moving around, which was when she started doing some weird stuff. After some low-grade aggressions on some lower-ranking hyenas (normal), RBC went bristle-tailed (showing excitement), wandered around, groaned, and pawed the ground. A lot. Ground-pawing is something that is most commonly done by males when courting females. Hyenas also paw the ground after urinating or defecating. There's speculation that it may also play a role in scent marking (this alternative purpose of ground-pawing is something I read in an outdated book on hyenas that suggested there could be interdigital glands that release a substance used for marking. I don't know if there have been recent studies on the phenomenon). Males do it randomly when no females are around, so I'm inclined to believe that there are motivations other than courtship. Before this day, the only other time I had seen a female paw the ground was after urinating or defecating.

Soon after this DIGS arrived at the den. In response to DIGS' presence, RBC immediately giggled and went into a submissive posture (and was still bristle-tailed). Um, WHAT? I had to take a few extra minutes to confirm that I had the IDs correct. Yup, I definitely saw what I saw. Rumor has it that not even Kay has heard an alpha female giggle. Later, it happens again. RBC was bristle-tailed, in submissive posture, and giggling, while DIGS was bristle-tailed, groaning, and sniffing her.

I know what you're thinking. RBC is hurt. RBC wanted to prevent any potential conflicts or confrontations to avoid over-exertion while injured. Definitely, definitely possible, especially because it seemed like her submission wasn't elicited by any aggression on DIGS' part. However, that doesn't explain RBC's voluntary participation in aggressive interactions before and after her giggling bouts with DIGS (which happened with an intensity that seemed uncharacteristic of RBC, but pretty standard for most adult females).

Perhaps RBC and DIGS got caught up in some altercation and DIGS is actually the cause of RBC's puncture wound (I also noticed later in the session that DIGS had a wound on her right cheek, suggesting they were both involved in an antagonistic interaction, perhaps with each other, lions, and/or other hyenas). If DIGS did indeed hurt RBC, intentionally or otherwise, I can understand RBC's immediate submission.

Or, DIGS is working her way up in the world. Just this morning DIGS seemingly had it in for JONI, who currently sits in the #4-5 spot. DIGS' aggressions were clearly not cub-related (maternal interventions, which I alluded to in my previous post, are common and don't necessarily follow the strict hierarchy), and JONI appeased like she was standing at the door to heaven.

To be fair, we don't know as much about the rankings as we'd like to. I'm speaking for Serena camp, now; I suspect that Talek camp - the mzee of fisi camps - has a pretty good idea of who should be submissive to whom in their own clans. But after studying our hyenas for only 3 years, we are still trying to sort out the pecking order these guys have in place for themselves. So, really, a big switcheroo of (what we know to be) the rankings shouldn't be all that surprising to us, given how little we actually know.

Keeping that in mind, it's still fascinating. For the past 7+ months it seemed like our ladies had been behaving consistently with what we thought was their place in the hierarchy. But given that there have been only 2 instances of possible change in one month, it is all the more clear to me why still, after 3 years, we have not yet been able to fine-tune the rankings with the limited data that we do have.


Andy Gersick said...

Worst thing is that, until recently, we thought Diggory was two hyenas, one of them male (R.I.P,., Yin-yang the imaginary male hyena). So clearly there's a lot to work out with this clan.

WHICH is why it's so nice to be based at Serena camp. Lots to learn...

Kenna said...

I'm still laughing at "appeased like she was at the door of heaven." Oh man.

Best description, ever.

Leslie said...

Am sitting here with the original Diggory and telling him all about his hyena namesake and how she's a total badass. He's celebrating her social climb with a nap. :)

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