Two spotted hyena cubs

The social standing of spotted hyenas in the Serengeti National Park affected the animals’ risk of infection with a deadly virus. Credit: M. L. East

Ecology

High social status is a blessing and a curse for hyenas

Rank and age influence Serengeti hyenas’ susceptibility to virus.

Spotted hyena cubs with high-ranking mothers fared better during a deadly epidemic than cubs born lower down the social scale.

Infectious diseases are a common threat to social mammals such as spotted hyenas. Sarah Benhaiem at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and her colleagues monitored spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania during and after an outbreak of a lethal form of canine distemper virus. Cubs of subordinate mothers had a higher risk of infection and death than cubs of socially dominant mothers, maybe because high-ranking cubs get more milk.

But high-ranking adult hyenas had a greater infection risk than their social inferiors, probably because dominant adults tend to have more contact with infected group members. The findings indicate that social status and age have complex effects on group-living wild mammals, the authors say.