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Social support drives female dominance in the spotted hyaena


Identifying how dominance within and between the sexes is established is pivotal to understanding sexual selection and sexual conflict. In many species, members of one sex dominate those of the other in one-on-one interactions. Whether this results from a disparity in intrinsic attributes, such as strength and aggressiveness, or in extrinsic factors, such as social support, is currently unknown. We assessed the effects of both mechanisms on dominance in the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), a species where sexual size dimorphism is low and females often dominate males. We found that individuals with greater potential social support dominated one-on-one interactions in all social contexts, irrespective of their body mass and sex. Female dominance emerged from a disparity in social support in favour of females. This disparity was a direct consequence of male-biased dispersal and the disruptive effect of dispersal on social bonds. Accordingly, the degree of female dominance varied with the demographic and kin structure of the social groups, ranging from male and female co-dominance to complete female dominance. Our study shows that social support can drive sex-biased dominance and provides empirical evidence that a sex-role-defining trait can emerge without the direct effect of sex.

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Fig. 1: The effect of social support, body mass and sex on the probability that a spotted hyaena wins a dyadic interaction.
Fig. 2: The effect of dispersal and age on the cumulative relatedness of spotted hyaenas.
Fig. 3: The emergence of female dominance in spotted hyaenas and other social species.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are included in the R package vullioud2018 available on GitHub (


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We thank the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology for permission to conduct the study, the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, D. Thierer, S. Karl, M. Szameitat and P. Naman for their assistance and E. Huchard, M. Franz, O. Judson and P. Vullioud for helpful comments. The study was financed by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, the Werner Dessauer Stiftung, the Stiftung Naturschutz and private donors.

Author information




Conceptualization: O.P.H., A.C. and E.D. Methodology: A.C., C.V., F.R. and O.P.H. Software: C.V., A.C. and F.R. Formal analysis: C.V., A.C. and F.R. Investigation: O.P.H., E.D. and B.W. Resources: O.P.H. Data curation: O.P.H., C.V. and A.C. Writing of original draft: O.P.H., E.D., A.C. and C.V. Review and editing of draft: O.P.H., E.D, A.C., C.V., B.W. and F.R. Supervision: O.P.H. and A.C. Project administration: O.P.H. Funding acquisition: O.P.H.

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Correspondence to Oliver P. Höner.

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Vullioud, C., Davidian, E., Wachter, B. et al. Social support drives female dominance in the spotted hyaena. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 71–76 (2019).

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