Monday, February 15, 2016

Love Bites

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day: a day full of hearts, chocolate, roses, and lots and lots of money for Hallmark and Hershey.

In the hyena world, romance isn’t always so, well, rosy.

The spotted hyena social structure has dealt the males a tough hand. Males are lower ranking than all the females in a clan, and are frequently the targets of female aggression, often for no reason. And yet, males are the ones who initiate courtship – which includes getting unusually (read: dangerously) close to the female - hoping she’ll take kindly to them and they’ll eventually mate. To understand how hyena “flirting” works, let’s follow the hypothetical love story of Leprechaun, a male in Serena’s North territory, and his lady Waffles, the clan’s benevolent matriarch.
It’s Valentine’s Day in the Masai Mara. Leprechaun has just had a solid breakfast of fresh Thomson’s gazelle and some scavenged buffalo foot. The sun is shining, the air is warm, and Leprechaun has made up his mind: today’s the day he’ll approach Waffles, the most beautiful hyena in the clan, and ask her to be his.

Leprechaun - isn't he cute?!
With a heart full of love, he arrives at the den, and he spots her; Waffles, reclining in the  sun as it sets fire to her ginger fur, a bit of drool hanging from her mouth, a spot of blood on her cheek...Leprechaun’s can hardly believe how perfect she is. He remains on the den’s periphery, partially hidden by tall grass, gathering his courage. He was so sure on his way over here, but now he’s faltering. The overwhelming desire to approach Waffles so strongly contradicts his instinct to be wary and flee from powerful female hyenas, he’s almost can’t decide what to do.

Waffles, what a beaut.
Nonetheless, Leprechaun finally screws his courage to the sticking place and walks towards her, although she seems to take no notice. But he’s not discouraged; in fact, he’s suddenly close enough to smell the mud she rolled in this morning, his heart pounding. Suddenly she turns her head to look at him, and as fast as he can say “whoop” Leprechaun has run away and is back where he started, among the tall grass. Frustrated with himself for approach-avoiding, he takes a few deep breathes, gathers his courage once more and tries again, taking steps towards her. But alas, he can’t seem to overcome the instinct to flee, and he runs again. Waffles seems unperturbed, which is apropos since females will ignore most flirting attempts.

This is a male, Euchre (left) and the Happy Zebra matriarch, Pike (right) demonstrating how females usually don't care about the males. Pike is completely ignoring Euchre's brave approach.
After approach-avoiding Waffles for thirty minutes to no avail, Leprechaun tries a different strategy. Crossing his forearms and lowering his body to the ground, he bows several times to his queen, hoping she’ll finally notice that he’s the most loving, dedicated, and adoring hyena in the clan.

Waffles, meanwhile, is watching a songbird loop and dip above the den.

Leprechaun, still determined, starts to paw the ground, his entire being overflowing with awe for his beau.

Waffles has found a piece of grass particularly interesting, and is smelling it with vigor.

Leprechaun, our persistent hero, decides to approach Waffles one more time. With all the bravery he can muster, he takes several, cautious steps in her direction. Just when he thinks Waffles will never love him back, she finally sees him...and lunges and snaps at him. He tries approaching again, and she chases him for a few meters. Leprechaun can hardly believe it – she likes him back!! Every male knows that if a lady likes you back, she aggresses on you more than the other dudes (duh).

Leprechaun, absolutely buzzing with glee, approaches his love one more time, and instead of aggressing, Waffles lowers her mouth to the ground to let him know she’s restraining herself from biting or snapping at him. Seeing this, Leprechaun knows his flirting was successful, as Waffles is showing signs of being receptive to his advances. Waffles will then follow him to a secluded area where they will attempt to mate (which, even after all of this, is still not guaranteed to be successful, but that’s another story for another blog post).

After Leprechaun, Waffles will most likely mate with multiple males during this time when she’s ready to conceive. It may sound like unfaithful behavior, but Leprechaun knows, deep in his heart, that she’ll always be his lady. This was by far his best Valentine’s Day yet.
In an alternative scenario, if Waffles was not interested in Leprechaun’s advances, she would have continued aggressing on him until he left her alone. He would walk away from the den, disheartened, with new scratches on his back and a wounded heart to match. Aren’t we so glad this wasn’t how our hypothetical story ended??

In the human world, rejection sure stings. But at least the girl doesn’t bite the boy on the face.

Source: Szykman, M., Van Horn, R.C., Engh, A.L., Boydston, E.E., & Holekamp, K.E. (2007). Courtship and mating in free-living spotted hyenas. Behavior, 144, 815-846.


dee said...

Great post!! I can't wait for part two!

Virginia said...

Oh my goodness, I love this story so much!

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