BEACON Researchers at Work: Listening to the hyenas

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU graduate student Kenna Lehmann.

Have you ever seen a group of hyenas take down a zebra? Or fight off a pride of lions? Ok, probably not, so you’ll have to take my word for it: one of these activities is striking in its silence, while the other is a deafening cacophony. Why does the pride of lions require more vocalizations than an observer can keep track of, while the zebra requires none? To whom are these vocalizations directed? Are the hyenas vocalizing to ward off fear, coordinate their movements, scare off the lions, or all of the above? These are just a few of the questions we are trying to answer in the Holekamp Lab.

In collaboration with the Miikkulainen Lab at the University of Texas in Austin, we are trying to determine how emotions and communication interact, leading to complex cooperative behaviors, such as hyenas pushing lions off of a kill. I, myself, am attempting to tease apart the answers to our questions about the communication that takes place during these striking interactions. Right now, that mostly means being out in the field with a microphone pointed at hyenas and trying to catch good vocalizations during the right kinds of interactions. Once my field season is over, it will mean pouring over 27 years of behavioral observations to pull out and quantify our behaviors of interest. (If you’re curious about how difficult that is, take a look at this video or the video below!)

Then, we will be able to determine what influences hyenas to cooperate in these dangerous interactions. Who recruits allies and why? Who stays quiet in the hopes of sneaking a snack from a lazy lion? Do loud whoops, giggles, and lows always precede a concerted rush (i.e. a mob) at the lions? Who participates in and leads mobs? Is there a difference between altercations over food and those that take place near hyena dens?

Work done by Tracy Montgomery will determine the hormonal correlates of these complex behaviors. From this, we hope to learn something about hormones, affiliative behavior, and communication, the roles they play, and how they interact with one another.

The Miikkulainen Lab is tackling this question from a computational perspective. They are creating a computational model that will mirror the behaviors we see in hyenas in the field. Through manipulation of the environment and which cooperation challenges the digital hyenas face, they aim to understand what allows the production of these complex behaviors in a digital world.

Eventually, we hope to have a better understanding of what mechanisms govern these complex behaviors. The ultimate goal is to determine how these complex communicative and cooperative behaviors have evolved, in an attempt to more fully understand how our own ability to communicate via language may have arisen. This ultimate goal will require the collaboration of a huge number of scientists in the fields of communication, cooperation, and cognition. In an attempt to jumpstart this field, the Cooperative Predator Vocalization Consortium has organized a symposium at the International Ethological Congress (Behavior2015) in Cairns, Australia. “This symposium will draw together contemporary research findings on the links between communication and social behaviour (including cooperation) of large predators. The symposium will synthesise a new approach to the study of the cognitive-communicative-social complex, and its implications for future research into the evolution of cognition and language.”

If you want to help us push the field of communication, cooperation, and cognition forward, please join us at Behavior2015 or contact me ( and Arik ( about collaborating with the CPVC!

This entry was posted in BEACON Researchers at Work and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.