Sunday, June 23, 2013

Can a hyena grieve?

Emma nurses Rama while Tinsel stands nearby. Photo credit to Julie Turner. 

Emma is behaving like a mother hyena in mourning. One may say I am anthropomorphizing (and it is often very hard not to do so while living in the field with these hyenas!) but we have not seen her cub Dr. Pepper in over a month. Emma has been frequenting the den and there is a restless motion in her gait as she sniffs each cub that comes up to greet her with uncertain confusion. The other cubs at the den must smell her milk because they have been trying to nurse from her and it is only with great reluctance that she pulls away. It is not all that unusual that we have not seen Dr. Pepper in over a month because he is at the age will he will start making longer and longer forays away from the den but Emma’s recent behavior is not only greatly worrying but also heartbreaking.

Allonursing (nursing offspring that is not one’s own) occurs in many species of animal but typically only between kin- such as a mother nursing her daughter’s cub or a sister nursing a sister’s cub. A few nights ago Rama was the center of Emma’s attention; Emma has always been a very good mother and for some reason Emma had latched on to this little cub. Rama is much younger than her own Dr. Pepper at around 6 months of age (Dr. Pepper would be around 9 months) and Emma was licking and grooming Rama while Rama nursed from her mother Tinsel.

When Tinsel stood up Rama wandered over to Emma who licked at Rama, paused, and then lay down with a sigh and let Rama begin nursing from her. Emma and Tinsel are unrelated as far as we know so Emma had no relationship to little Rama but it seems that the mothering instinct was so strong in Emma that with her own cub missing she accepted Rama as a temporary replacement. In spotted hyenas allonursing is very rarely observed and seeing this behavior in Emma was extremely unusual because it would not seem to be adaptive.

There is some growing evidence that animals do experience emotions like grief, but it may never be possible to know if they feel emotions the way we do. Clearly, the loss of a cub can have very strong effects on the behavior of a hyena and I think it would be naïve to claim that animals like hyenas cannot feel at least some level of emotional pain.


Brea S. said...

Hi, random non-scientific blog follower here. I have been wondering this for months and since it's come up there any evidence that hyenas understand the permanence-concept of death when another (verifiably, with a body present for a while) dies? Has anyone ever did that really famous experiment on them that they did with elephants & playback a dead one's voice to see how they react to it since they have/recognize individual voices? (What that would prove I don't know, that's why you guys are the scientists, I just want to know/see what would happen!)

Just always been really curious about that.

Kenna said...

Hi Brea, grad student in the Holekamp lab here.

I will be doing some playbacks with deceased hyenas when I go into the field next summer. Stay tuned!

Scissors MacGillicutty said...

I don't remember the names Emma, or Tinsel here before (although Dr. Pepper seems to ring a bell...odd) Which clan are they from?

Also, I couldn't tell with certainty from the photo, but it seems Emma and Tinsel are collared. Am I right, or do I need new glasses?

I hope Emma's cub reappears, but the prospects seem to be dimming, alas. :( Please let us know.

Lily J-U said...

Emma, Tinsel, and Dr. P are from North clan and yes they are both collared! We still haven't seen any sign of Dr. P even though we've started seeing the other graduated/in the process of graduating cubs fairly regularly. We usually don't call a hyena dead or missing until he hasn't been sighted for 6 months, but with Dr. P being a cub and Ema's behavior his prospects don't look good, especially since we've been seeing all the other graduated/in the process of graduating cubs fairly regularly.

Louisette kat said...

Wonderfull hyene, greetong from Belgium

Safari Cal said...


I observed a collared female Hyena that I took to be twaffle during my trip to the Mara in July.

I chatted to one of your research assistants, the one in the eclipse photos, for a while at the Serena petrol pump while I was refuelling. Should have asked then, but...!

I have a question. I observed a collared Hyena, who I assumed was Twaffle, but I'm not so sure now.

She was being really pestered by some sub adult cubs who had already had a go at another female and again had a nibble at another female after the collared female had been run off.

It isn't normal for the Alpha female to take that kind of nonsense from two obviously high ranking sub adult cubs is it? Are other lower ranking females collared also?

I have a sequence of photos I can send if you're interested.

Many thanks.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science