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When it comes to advancing social status, it's not what you know, it's who you know—for humans and spotted hyenas alike.
In a new study published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michigan State University scientists show that hyenas that form strong coalitions can gain social status, which can have lasting benefits over many generations.
Animals - System - Eli - Strauss - MSU
"The high-ranked animals clearly benefit from this system," said Eli Strauss, MSU integrative biologist and the study's lead author. "But low-ranked animals have a strong incentive to challenge the established pecking order and attempt to improve their position in society. This work represents a first step in reconciling the advantages of high status with the appearance of 'arbitrary' conventions that structure inequality in animal and human societies."
Moving up the proverbial ladder can result in substantive differences in health, survival and reproductive success. So, with some animals, social rank is determined by individual fighting ability or physical attributes. Typically, low-ranked individuals are unable to defeat their larger or stronger, higher-ranked contemporaries. However, in other species, such as spotted hyenas, social rank is determined through a convention known as "maternal rank inheritance."
Structure - Families - Sits - Offspring - Heirs
This structure can be compared to royal families. The queen sits at the top, and her offspring are the heirs to the throne. This explains what's been observed in hyena clans since Kay Holekamp, MSU University Distinguished Professor of integrative biology and co-author, started her study in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve 27 years—and five generations of spotted hyenas—ago.
Spotted hyenas live in large, mixed-sex groups, or clans. They have highly stable hierarchies, in which being a "queen" reaps many benefits. Sometimes, however, the crown is challenged, and "lesser" hyenas move up the ladder.
Individuals - Individuals - Individuals - Group-mates - Strauss
"We often see small individuals dominate larger individuals, and even severely wounded individuals can dominate their healthy group-mates," Strauss said....
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