In most animal societies, members of one sex dominate those of the other. Is this, as widely believed, an inevitable consequence of a disparity in strength and ferocity between males and females? Not necessarily. A new study on wild spotted hyaenas shows that in this social carnivore, females dominate males because they can rely on greater social support than males, not because they are stronger or more competitive in any other individual attribute. The main reason for females having, on average, more social support than males is that males are more likely to disperse and that dispersal disrupts social bonds. The study by scientists of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW, Germany) and the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution de Montpellier (ISEM, France) was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Spotted hyaena females are often portrayed as archetypes of powerful and ferocious females. They are on average heavier than the males, have highly masculinised outer genitalia (a ‘pseudo-penis’ and a ‘pseudo-scrotum’), and usually occupy the highest position in the society. But according to the new study, it is not their manliness that allows them to dominate males. “When two hyaenas squabble, the one that can rely on greater social support wins, irrespective of sex, body mass or aggressiveness,” explains Oliver Hoener, head of the Ngorongoro Hyena Project of the Leibniz-IZW. Differences in social support between two individuals correctly predicted who will be the dominant in almost all encounters and in all contexts — between natives and immigrants, members of the same and different clans, residents and intruders, and individuals of the same and opposite sex. Female dominance thus emerges from females being more likely to receive greater social support than males. “What is so fascinating is that it all works without any direct involvement of other hyaenas,” says Colin Vullioud, Hoener’s colleague at Leibniz-IZW and first author of the study. “In the end, it’s all about assertiveness and how confident a hyaena is of receiving support if needed.”