The complexity of human societies may seem like more of a curse than a blessing these days, but we likely owe that complexity—and the stresses it brings—a debt of gratitude for one of our most important physiological traits: the size of our brains. Scientists have long hypothesized that large brains evolved in response to the many selective pressures inherent in complex societies. Much of this research has focused on primates, including humans, but recent studies by scientists at Michigan State University found evidence to support the hypothesis in a somewhat unlikely subject: spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). By far the most social of the four species of hyena, spotted hyenas also have a significantly larger forebrain (the region responsible for complex decision-making) than their nearest relatives.
Native throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, spotted hyenas live in large, interrelated, matriarchal clans of up to a hundred individuals. Able to recognize even distant kin, such as great aunts and cousins, spotted hyenas learn their social rank as cubs, and use that information throughout their lives to build social alliances, resolve conflicts, and gain access to resources. Although they are often characterized as scavengers, spotted hyenas generally prefer to capture their own prey. Working together, these accomplished social hunters frequently take down large animals such as wildebeests (Connochaetes sp.) and Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer). After a kill, the clan’s dominant female gets first pick of the feast, with lower ranking members filing in around and behind her. Interestingly, a clan’s leader attains her position not based on her size or aggression but, essentially, because of her “popularity”: She has the most extensive network of allies in the clan.
With a global population estimated at 10,000 individuals, spotted hyenas are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a species of least concern. Which is not to say they don’t face threats. As populations and subsistence agriculture in many parts of Africa increase, human-hyena encounters do as well, with the hyenas more often than not suffering the deadly consequences.
Photographer Will Burrard-Lucas has devoted a significant portion of his career to developing innovative technologies specifically to minimize direct interactions with shy, nocturnal, and potentially dangerous animals, like hyenas. Having followed this clan throughout the previous night in Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park, he deployed his remote-controlled “BeetleCam” at daybreak, and drove it straight into the group. As the strange interloper approached, the hyenas gathered around to investigate, allowing Burrard-Lucas to capture an intimate portrait of this powerful and curious species.
Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia
UK-based wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas spent part of his childhood in Tanzania where he developed a deep passion for African wildlife. He is known for developing innovative approaches and technologies, such as remote-controlled buggy systems, for his cameras to capture fresh perspectives of shy, nocturnal, and potentially dangerous animals.
Katie Jewett is a Bay Area science writer, previously at the California Academy of Sciences and now at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, where she loves learning something new about our planet every day. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.