Why are hyenas important?
The “Why are _______ important?” question. Every wildlife researcher is asked this question at some point in his or her career. Heck, I’ve already had to answer it myself; first when I studied red knots as an undergrad, and now as a hyena researcher. It’s a valid question that often helps to justify spending money, effort, time, and limited resources to conduct these studies.
So, just why are we spending lots of time and effort to study hyenas when they are (albeit absolutely fascinating) abundant and listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)?
Well, the hyenas’ complex social system, vocalizations, female dominance, and unique physical features have been a boon to researchers studying exceptions to the rules of mammal evolution. By understanding these exceptions found in hyena behavior and sociality, we can better understand why the majority of mammals evolved in opposite ways (male dominance, solitary sociality, etc.) Their value to behavioral, ecological, and physiological sciences is immeasurable.
|A male cautiously approaching the very dominant matriarch. Female dominance is rare among mammals.|
Furthermore, hyenas are keystone species in many of their native ecosystems. In science language, a keystone species exerts a great effect on its ecosystem that is disproportionate to its abundance. In normal language, a keystone species is one vital to its ecosystem; without this species, the environment might degrade, change drastically, or even collapse. In our case, without hyenas to hunt herbivores here in the Mara, the antelopes and gazelles would be left unchecked to graze to their hearts’ content, potentially causing massive and most likely deleterious changes to the landscape.
|Hyenas eating a buffalo, and doing their part to maintain balance in the Mara.|
Hyenas are also resilient in ways few other mammals are. They have incredibly strong immune systems and are resistant to diseases that would readily extirpate other species, including canine distemper, rabies, even anthrax. Hyenas also exhibit behavioral plasticity: they can change their behavior in order to live in varying environmental conditions. They can be active during the day or at night, survive on dead or fresh meat (even insects!), get by on very little water, and even breed any time of year depending on resource availability. Essentially, these guys are survivors. So, should a hyena population start to decline, researchers and managers can use that as an indicator that the ecosystem is most likely severely degraded and there’s a serious problem.
So,...are hyenas important?
Answer: A big, resounding YES!! Without hyenas, African ecosystems would be very different and our collective human knowledge about our fellow mammals would be wanting. And, as a hyena researcher, I think the world would be a lesser place without these charismatic, goofy, fierce, playful, loving, fascinating, and curious animals.
|Everyone needs a little hyena in their life!|
If you want to read further about hyena history and conservation (there’s so much to learn!), check out the IUCN’s Hyaena Specialist Group’s website here.
"Hyena Conservation." IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Smith, J.E. and Holekamp, K.E. "Spotted hyenas." Elsevier Ltd., 2010. PDF file.