Monday, May 15, 2017

To the Moms

Moms across the animal kingdom come in all shapes and sizes, though few share a bond as close and longstanding as our hyena mothers and their kin. Juvenile spotted hyenas can take as long as 2 years to achieve full independence, owing in part to the extremely long developmental period of their jaw bones and muscles. Even through the end of their juvenile stage and into adulthood, female hyenas remaining in the clan retain a longstanding attachment to their mothers, sisters, and aunts, supporting one another in competition with other carnivores and other members of their clan for food and living space. However, not all moms are built alike, and mothering styles can vary widely from female to female, sometimes leading to interesting behavioral differences in offspring from what could be considered the “norm.” This is a new and exciting field of research in our hyenas, which we’re just beginning to explore and understand, but for now I’d like to highlight some of the most unique stories of moms in our clans. 

Talek West

Buenos Aires (BUAR)

BUAR maintains her leadership over the clan in part by raising tough-as-nails kids to ensure her rank, even in her absence. BUAR’s style consists, in large part, of knowing and determining where everything and everyone is at any point in time. Her kids are no exception: when HRTZ and NANO were young, one could see large visible bald patches on their sides (pictured here), something I’ve seen on no other black cub this year. We were later to discover that these patches are the result of BUAR’s constant fondness for picking up (with no degree of gentleness) and placing her cubs exactly where she desires them to be, an often tedious and repetitive affair which happens many times in one session. If BUAR decides she needs the attention or presence of her cubs, she isn’t above interrupting play bouts, naps, and even nursing to forcefully reposition them into a place in which she can keep a more watchful eye over them. On occasion, this behavior even extends to the cubs of other moms, although in these cases, it seems to be more of a show of dominance than anything else. Despite the unusual nature of her meddling, BUAR is a highly successful mom. In her 7.5 years of life, only one of her eight cubs has died prematurely, a rare feat among hyenas. Indeed her goal is not to disrupt the interests of her offspring, but to build a strong and lasting bond with them (whether they are male or female). Such a bond is secured and maintained through long, consistent bouts of time spent with them, an abundance of nursing before they are weaned, and continuous lessons on their rank through coalitionary aggressions on lower-ranking clanmates. Even into adulthood, this affiliative behavior is not forgotten, and members of the royal family can be seen hanging out together at a higher rate than other families within the Main Doc clan.

Borana (BORA)

CALA, BORA's latest cub
For some moms, especially those who are relatively new to raising cubs, the mothering instinct simply isn’t as strong as others. Some mothers have been known to actively and consistently aggress on cubs trying to nurse, refuse to groom their own cubs, or force their cubs to stand while nursing by never laying down or paying attention to them while at the den. A very stark example of this instinct was shown in this year’s litter of cubs. To give some background, MAA and BORA are both mid ranking sisters in Main Doc clan, separated by 2 years in age. MAA gave birth to her second litter this year, while BORA began her third. At first glance, some interesting differences between the behavior of the older children of these sisters arise. Despite their similarity in rank, MAA’s eldest Flamelily appears at first glance to be much more active in the clan and in good graces with the royal family than any one of BORA’s children (Gorfa, Rungu, and Mkuki). She seems to have made appearances much more frequently and displayed a higher level of boldness, both towards other hyenas and towards people. MAA’s newest cub, Tigerlily, seems on track to carry out a similar set of behaviors, though only time will tell if his behavioral trend continues into adulthood and is displayed in MAA’s future litters. BORA’s shaky start is apparent in her behavior at the den – during our period of study, she spent much less time than average (and than MAA) at her cub’s den. She also seemed to prefer nursing as far away as possible from the center of the den, and when multiple dens were active at once, preferred to keep her youngest, CALA, at the least crowded den. If this is a trend that extends back to her first litter, the cubs in question could end up with less time socializing with cohorts of the same age and fewer cubs with which to socialize, leading them to be less versed in hyena ways and ranks, and more likely to be loners in adulthood. But while most moms improve their technique with age, BORA seems to be exhibiting a reverse trend in her mothering success. Her first cubs have both survived to adulthood, albeit as spookier, less social individuals than their rank may permit. In last year’s litter, Mkuki’s sibling Jembe disappeared prematurely at less than 2 years of age. It seems that this year, BORA’s maternal instinct has failed her entirely, letting her latest cub CALA, around 6 months old when last seen, starve with little provocation. BORA herself appears to remain healthy, but over time had less and less of a desire to visit the den in which her cub dwelled, eventually ceasing altogether. What drives the difference in maternal instinct, especially in new moms, is thus far a mystery. But perhaps by observing and understanding moms like BORA, we can eventually puzzle it out.

Megabyte (BYTE)

BYTE, with BRET and LARI before they were separated
BYTE is another testament to the oddities displayed by new moms in the clan. On occasion, spotted hyena moms show odd behavior in the placement of one or both of their cubs at dens, which can show its face in several different ways. For example, if a mother has two cubs and feels she is unable to care for both, she will often abandon one at a den which is becoming inactive in favor of providing for the other (usually dominant) sibling. On rarer occasions, a mother who is usually less than social with her clanmates will raise a cub away from the den in relative isolation. This is usually detrimental to the development of the cub, since they learn their rank from interactions with their den-mates. BYTE’s latest litter is rare in that she appeared to pick both of the above options. For about half of BRET and LARI’s first five months of life, they were raised separately at two different den complexes. One interesting result of this behavior is that the dominant littermate remained (and in large part still remains) in question. On one hand BRET seemed to get the better of his brother in nursing in preferred position during the times when they were together. On the other, BYTE appeared to pay more attention to LARI and spend more time at LARI’s den during the times when we observed him, and thus grew to be the bigger littermate as a result. One could only guess as to the factors that affected BYTE’s decision making during this process. Perhaps it was pure confusion, owing to the fact that her first cub Rumaki was a singleton. Perhaps she found it overwhelming to deal with two cubs at a time. In any case, both cubs are alive and well and have been reunited at last. Only time will tell whether their period of separation will have an effect on their socialization, or whether BYTE’s odd denning behavior will become a trend.


Marten (MTN)

PC Olivia Spagnuolo
PC Olivia Spagnuolo
MTN, a resident of Serena’s South clan, is a great example of how the social behavior of cubs can be learned just as easily from den-mates as from mothers. While she often displays antisocial behavior and prefers to spend as much time away from the social atmosphere at the den as possible, her latest DAMA was an extremely emboldened cub who preferred nothing less than spending all his time romping around with his littermates. One could perhaps surmise that, in the absence of his mother’s influence, the extremely large cohort of cubs in South this past year (around 15 at its peak) could have played a larger role in his socialization. However, at the end of the day, his mother’s wishes trumped even the influence of his den-mates. With Marten spending larger and larger blocks of time away from the den, DAMA seemed to have little choice but to graduate early to spend time with his mom and get the nourishment he needed to grow to adulthood. Unfortunately, this event likely led to his premature disappearance from the clan. What is interesting about this event is that MTN is not a new mom at all, with DAMA having been part of her eighth litter of cubs. This truly seems to suggest a trend in behavior which has affected her mothering style. Unfortunately, in this case a lack of participation on the mother’s front has led to the survival of only 2/12 of her cubs, suggesting that this behavior is highly detrimental to the wellbeing of offspring. Whether she’s too set in her ways as an adult to change, or simply regards her own survival as being more important than that of her cubs remains to be seen.

Palazzo (PALA)

SAMI, with some den-mates
PC Olivia Spagnuolo
PALA, like BORA, is also a third time mom this year. However, she falls on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum in terms of attentiveness to her cub. She has a watchfulness for her latest SAMI which borders on possessiveness. Often, the majority of her time at the den is spent intervening in her cub’s shenanigans and carrying him back to a place of safety. While this may in the future discourage SAMI’s boldness, a trait he currently shows in abundance, it can have its merits too. She is willing to go to great lengths to maternally intervene with meddling subadults, individuals which may try to aggress on SAMI, and even fellow cubs who are playing a bit too rough. Check out the video below for a great example of this!

VC Olivia Spagnuolo

All moms are different, and all moms are wonderful! Happy Mother’s Day everyone!

1 comment:

ToniAynia said...

Thank you, Rebecca LaFleur and all MSU Hyena Research team for all the work you do and for sharing your findings.

When I was first introduced (albeit virtually) to free-living Spotted Hyenas, something about their beings just inexplicably grabbed my mind and some not small portion of my heart as well.

Somehow I see Spotted Hyenas especially as quite strong “bridge” Animals. These Animal(Kin) demonstrate quite a lot of behaviors and characteristics that a large number of humans opine belong more or less exclusively to the human animal.

Here, as in many other facets of their beings, Spotted Hyenas Mothers show that each individual is indeed individual. There’s no one size fits all. And this is basically true of most Animal(Kin). Each being has some bit of characteristic that is basically their own.

Countless times I’ve heard Safari Guides make statements that Hyenas either never do something or always do some other behavior. And, sure enough, Hyenas will at some point conduct themselves in some extraordinary, unexpected way and prove the humans’ judgements incorrect.

I wonder sometimes if humans that level such judgements do so in order to exert some kind of control and distance between themselves and Animal(Kin). That probably from some instinctive place there is a feeling that to allow an Animal(Kin) too close is too dangerous. Which certainly can be true. The human as an Animal is basically weak in its physical characteristics in comparison to other Animal(Kin).

As we learn more about Spotted Hyenas and realize that they are not so very dissimilar to humans and thereby bridging that gap between the species, where does anthropomorphism come into the picture?

As one who has had to cope with hurtful prejudices from others, anthropomorphism is one of the things I worry about quite a lot actually. It’s worrisome that some number of people may start leveling even more expectations and judgements on Animal(Kin) than they already do and punish them when they do not act in the ways the human animals decide they should act.

But, on the other edge of the sword, if we do not build some kind of relationship of understanding and appreciation with these beautiful Animal(Kin) and all Animal(Kin) for that matter, then what will their fate be?

The human as a species is most often for me a quite scary creature. On one of the broadcasted Safari Drives the question was put, ‘Which Animal would you be most frightened to see out here [in the bush]?’ My answer – the human animal, in this case in the form of poachers.

With unfortunately over 7.5 billion human animals on the planet, if Animal(Kin) are to survive, the humans will have to be an active part of Animal(Kin) survival. I do wonder how might humans be made to appreciate and care for the/”our” Animal(Kin) and the/”our” Earth overall and yet keep harmful expectations out of the equation?
I believe the answers rest with you and all the researchers out there, to guide all of the rest of us out there.

So again, I thank you for all you are doing for the amazing and beautiful Spotted Hyenas.

Blessings and OhWhooop!
Toni… Pennsylvania, USA
p.s I hope what I've written here makes some kind of sense? Often what makes sense in my head, doesn't always work out the same way in writing/speaking. :)

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science