Article image

Hyena clans have a social hierarchy where very few members have upward social mobility

In some human monarchies, inherited power offers a ladder to absolute authority. In hyena monarchies, such power can be a slippery downward slide.

This, according to a new study conducted by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (MPI-AB). 

By examining hyena societies over three decades, the experts came to an interesting conclusion. The process by which these animals inherit rank from their mothers (maternal inheritance) corrodes the social status of individuals.

Every member of a hyena clan, besides the highest-ranking queen, experiences downward mobility during their lifetime.

Hyena clans hierarchy 

Hyena clans are arranged in a linear dominance hierarchy. Through this method, offspring inherit their rank below their mother through a monarchy-like process.

Thus, at the top of the hierarchy is the queen. She is followed by her offspring, and then all the other females and their young. 

According to study author Eli Strauss, a behavioral ecologist at MPI-AB, a hyena’s place in the hierarchy matters a lot. “A lower rank means you have less access to food, you have to travel more to hunt, you are harassed more, you even have less time nursing your babies,” he explained.

How the hyena research was conducted 

To assess whether hyenas can break rank and change status, Strauss examined a database from the Mara Hyena Project, which has been studying spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya since the late 1980s.

By analyzing over four decades of data on hyena behavior from four social groups, Strauss found that, although hyenas could move up and down in their social hierarchy over time, they tended to slid down much more often than jumping up. 

“You wouldn’t think this downward mobility was happening if you were just observing the animals in the wild, because the process happens over many years. It’s only by taking an intergenerational view that you realize that a daughter born to the alpha queen has suffered a significant downturn in status throughout the course of her life,” Strauss said.

To determine what causes this persistent downward trajectory, Strauss examined more closely the life histories of all individuals. He found that hyenas descended in rank most frequently because another hyena had joined or left the group (demographic turnover).

“It’s tempting to imagine the intrigue and machinations of Game of Thrones, where animals are plotting to overthrow each other. But in hyena societies, an individual’s power is passively eroded as other clan members are born or die,” he explained.

What the researchers discovered about hyena clans

In a further step, by drawing on methods used to investigate social mobility in human societies, Strauss created computer simulated hyena societies, which allowed him to “turn off” various aspects of their biology and thus pinpoint the specific societal rules driving this surprising pattern.

The simulation revealed two causes of this specific pattern: the monarchy-like inheritance of hyena societies and the fact that higher-ranking females usually give birth to more offspring.

These combined factors suggest that new group members are not being added randomly, but rather on the top of the hierarchy, under the dominant females, which pushes all other individual besides the queen downwards over time.

These findings provide evidence that societal features can have a major impact on individuals, often usurping their agency in altering the course of their lives.

“It seems that no matter what a hyena does, they are going to experience a decline in rank over time. It’s hard to fathom that they navigate lives in which everybody, but the queen, suffers a loss in quality. Clearly, they do succeed, so the next question is how,” Strauss concluded.

The study is published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

More about hyenas

Hyenas are a fascinating group of carnivorous mammals found primarily in Africa and parts of Asia. They belong to the family Hyaenidae.

This family includes four species: the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), the brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea), the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), and the aardwolf (Proteles cristata). Here are some key characteristics and facts about hyenas:


Hyenas have a unique appearance, with a robust build, large heads, and sloping backs. They have strong jaws, powerful necks, and well-developed forelimbs. The size and appearance of hyenas vary depending on the species.

Social structure

Spotted hyenas live in highly organized clans that can consist of up to 80 individuals. The clan is led by a dominant female called the matriarch. Female hyenas are typically larger and more dominant than males. Brown and striped hyenas are generally solitary or found in small family groups.


Hyenas are primarily scavengers, but they are also skilled hunters. They have strong jaws and teeth that allow them to crush and consume bones, which most other carnivores cannot do. Hyenas feed on a wide range of prey, including wildebeests, zebras, antelopes, and even larger animals like buffalo and giraffes.

Hunting techniques

Spotted hyenas are known for their exceptional hunting skills and cooperative hunting behavior. They often work together in groups to bring down larger prey. Brown and striped hyenas are more opportunistic hunters, targeting smaller animals and scavenging when possible.


Hyenas communicate using a variety of vocalizations, including whoops, giggles, and growls. These vocalizations can convey social status, alarm calls, or coordinate group activities. They also use scent marking to establish territory and communicate with other hyenas.


Hyenas are adaptable and can thrive in a range of habitats, including grasslands, savannas, woodlands, and deserts. They have a relatively wide distribution across sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East and India.


Hyenas often face negative stereotypes due to their scavenging habits and vocalizations, which are sometimes associated with eerie laughter. However, they are highly intelligent and social animals with complex behaviors.

Hyenas play a crucial ecological role as scavengers and predators, helping to keep ecosystems balanced. Despite some conservation concerns, hyena populations are generally stable, although they face threats from habitat loss, poaching, and conflicts with humans.

Overall, hyenas are remarkable creatures with unique adaptations and behaviors, making them a significant part of the African and Asian wildlife.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day