Published: May 18, 2015

It’s best to make friends of friends – even spotted hyenas know that

Contact(s): Layne Cameron Media Communications office: (517) 353-8819 cell: (765) 748-4827, Kay Holekamp Integrative Biology office: (517) 432-3691

Bonding with a friend of a friend is something most humans gravitate toward naturally, or at least Facebook likes to think so every time it suggests friends for you to “friend.”

But a certain four-legged predator, the spotted hyena, seems to know the benefits of this type of social bonding instinctively, according to a new study from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis that considers the structural factors affecting the social network of these animals.

A team of researchers, including Kay Holekamp, Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of zoology, found that cohesive clustering of the kind where an individual bonds with friends of friends, something scientists call “triadic closure,” was the most consistent factor influencing the long-term dynamics of the social structure of spotted hyenas.

Individual traits, such as sex and social rank, and environmental effects, such as the amount of rainfall and the abundance of prey, also matter, but the ability of individuals to form and maintain social bonds in triads was key, according to the study in the current issue of Ecology Letters.

“Cohesive clusters can facilitate efficient cooperation and hence maximize fitness, and so our study shows that hyenas exploit this advantage. Interestingly, clustering is something done in human societies, from hunter-gatherers to Facebook users,” explained lead author Amiyaal Ilany, who conducted the research as a NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow.

Hyenas, which can live up to 22 years, typically live in large, stable groups known as clans comprising more than 100 individuals. Socially sophisticated animals, these predators can discriminate maternal and paternal kin from unrelated hyenas and are selective in their social choices, tending to not form bonds with every hyena in the clan, rather preferring the friends of their friends, the study found.

The study found that hyenas follow a complex set of rules when making social decisions. Males follow rigid rules in forming bonds, whereas females tend to change their preferences over time. For example, a female might care about social rank at one time, but then later choose based on rainfall amounts.

“In spotted hyenas, females are the dominant sex, and so they can be quite flexible in their social preferences,” Holekamp said. “In contrast, males disperse to new clans after reaching puberty, and after they disperse they have virtually no social control because they are the lowest ranking individuals in the new clan. So we can speculate that perhaps this is why they are obliged to follow stricter social rules.”

Knowing why and how these animals form lasting relationships can help scientists better understand cooperation patterns and the consequences of sociality in other species.

The researchers used a new type of mathematical modeling typically found in sociology, to arrive at their findings about the social world of the spotted hyena.

This more dynamic approach allowed the researchers to evaluate the simultaneous effects of multiple factors – environmental, individual, genetic and structural – on network dynamics. It also gave the researchers a peek into how or why the social structure changes over time and to isolate the factors that shape the structure.

University Distinguished Professor of zoology Kay Holekamp, a top authority and researcher of spotted hyenas.