Friday, March 6, 2015

Hyena in mourning

Here's the scene: we are at the Serena North den for an evening observation session.  The cubs are playing around the denhole, and a few moms are sacked out nursing their young.  All is calm and well.

Get Fuzzy, a new mom, arrives at the den and amicably greets the other moms.  Fuzzy is relatively low-ranking, so she submissively puts her ears back and bobs her head as she approaches the others, who sniff her without aggressing on her.  A few minutes later, we hear a small cub whooping from the far denhole, and Fuzzy goes bristle-tail (a sign of excitement) and runs over.

What happens next is a loud and raucous fight, which we can’t see very well.  Sauer and Polar (two other moms) are fiercely aggressing on Fuzzy, who is squealing loudly and defensive growling.  Fuzzy then emits a very distressed-sounding whoop bout.  The older cubs run over and join in for a second round of aggressions on Fuzzy (more squeals and growls), while the younger cubs hide in the close denhole.  Listen – it’s intense!

By the time we drive around to a spot where we can see into this far denhole, Fuzzy is protectively standing over her cub, Phalanges.  Phalanges, however, is dead.  Was he the cub who whooped, and was he subsequently killed in those severe aggressions?  Were Fuzzy’s whoops an anguished call for help, once she realized her cub was dead?  Or was Phalanges already deceased when Fuzzy arrived at the denhole, and was she protecting his body from the others?  We don't know, although Fuzzy's immediate reaction to the cub whoops makes us suspect that Phalanges was whooping, and was later killed during the aggressions.

Fuzzy carrying Phalanges
Fuzzy standing guard over Phalanges' body
For the next few hours, Fuzzy guards Phalanges’ body.  At the beginning, she spends most of her time grooming him, perhaps trying to put life back into his small figure.  Whenever another hyena approaches her, she picks up Phalanges and sticks him in the denhole, and then puts the front half of her torso in the den, effectively blocking any other individuals from accessing his body.  Even if the other hyena bites or otherwise aggresses on her, Fuzzy stays in the den, defending the body until the other hyena moves away.  She then picks up Phalanges and resumes grooming him. 

Fuzzy grooming Phalanges
Moms usually carry their cubs by the scruff of their neck.  However, when Fuzzy picks up Phalanges’ body, she often does so by the leg, the middle of the torso, or other unusual postures for cub carrying.  This leads us to speculate that she recognizes that Phalanges is dead, despite her commitment to grooming and protecting his body.

Fuzzy carrying Phalanges by the shoulder
Fuzzy carrying Phalanges by the back
Fuzzy standing over a dead Phalanges
As the night goes on, she grooms him less and instead simply lies next to him.  We eventually leave her, and sadly seek our own beds.  When we return in the morning, Fuzzy and Phalanges are both gone.

Fuzzy sacked out against Phalanges' lifeless body


Anonymous said...

That's very sad. And surprisingly similar to anecdotes about mourning in other intelligent animals. I thought cubs dying in aggressions was uncommon?

Anonymous said...

Whoa so intense! Must've been so hard to observe. Thanks for the sound and photos; I feel like I was there.

Meg said...

Wow Tracy, amazing observations. Great audio! Makes me sad, but very interesting behaviour at the same time! Thanks!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science