Thursday, October 18, 2018


Much like kids on the playground, when a spotted hyena male has a crush on a female he begins a complicated set of behaviors similar to flirting. Female spotted hyenas are larger, more aggressive, and socially dominant to males, so interested males must carefully follow a set of courting behaviors in order to gain favor with and avoid a good bite from females. These behaviors are sometimes antagonistic, sometimes submissive, and sometimes downright bizarre.

Courtship behavior often starts as it does in humans. A male will pick out a lady he finds particularly attractive and attempt to get close to her, even following her around in the hopes she’ll take a liking to him.
Watch our Sauer! He's right behind you!
One of the most common courting behaviors we see is called an “approach avoid”. This behavior looks exactly as it sounds- males will rapidly approach a female and then rapidly retreat. Because males are so nervous around these large-and-in-charge ladies, they will run away even if the females completely ignore them. If a male approaches a female several times from a distance (sometimes as far as 10m) and she does not attack him, he’ll get closer and closer to test the waters until she’s fed up and lunges him away. He’ll keep up this behavior, even after being attacked by a female, if he’s particularly infatuated. This is a way for males to assess how aggressive a female is feeling, and how receptive she is to his proximity.
Toledo realizing he's made a mistake as Whiz lunges toward him.

Once a male has approach-avoided his way up close to his female of choice, he will then perform some smaller, equally as frantic, behaviors to attract her attention. One of these behaviors is pawing ground and looks like a dog digging in the dirt. Males have interdigital (between toe) scent glands, and pawing the ground in the direction of a female serves to deposit his scent for the female to smell, much like a young boy making mud pies to gain the favor of his kindergarten crush. Next up is foreleg grooming. To ensure that his hair is looking nice and smooth, a male will begin licking his front legs in the direction of a female.
Leprechaun licks his foreleg.

Finally, if all has gone well and his selected lady seems receptive to this male’s particular style of flirting, he will perform the ultimate courting act- the bow. A male will approach his female, lift one foreleg, and cross it over the other. He then bows his head in the ultimate act of submission. We are incredibly lucky to have witnessed this behavior as it is one of the most bizarre and magical behaviors that hyenas perform.

Tune in to Kate's next post which will explore what happens when all of these behaviors are performed to perfection, and the female chooses her mate.

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

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