Is Indian striped hyena really a solitary animal?

Is Indian striped hyena really a solitary animal?
Last week, when I was exploring the reptiles of eastern Rajasthan, I witnessed a very unique behaviour in the striped hyena. I was with lizard expert, Dr Deepak V, and we were looking for a ground dwelling lizard species that usually emerges after good sunlight, disappears during high sun in the afternoon, and reappears again in the evening when the sand gets cooler, post sunset. This fringe-toed lizard, when out in the late afternoon keeps raising its limbs to keep them cool and keeps searching for insects to feed on.

As we finished our reptile research for the day, our field researcher informed us that a hyena family had been seen emerging out from its den. This was the activity time for nocturnal scavengers, the sun had almost dipped and the air was turning cooler, and the hyena mother was out with her cubs. We were thrilled and quickly clicked some pictures, keeping a safe distance and hiding ourselves behind a sand mound. We saw three cubs and a mother sitting just outside their den. There was some white fur lying around which we gathered could be the wool of a dead sheep. This hinted that they had consumed the flesh, while the remaining parts were playing and learning tools for the hyena cubs.

However, the most unique thing that we noticed was that all the hyena cubs’ ages were not similar. Out of three, two looked about two months old while the third was almost six months. Three questions came to my mind: does the hyena mother deliver two litters in one season and in such a short span? Or does the mother adopt some orphan cub? Or is it simply that an older cub comes from a neighbouring den to play with the smaller cubs? Why we were puzzled was that the Indian striped hyenas are considered solitary animals, but the presence of the six month-old cub revealed that they do have some interaction with other female hyenas as well. For it is biologically not possible that a hyena can produce twice in such a short span.

I wrote to a world hyena expert, Aaron P Wagner of Michigan State University, to check about this and he replied that though that striped hyenas can have more than one litter in a year, it could never be this close together. So in all likelihood, what we had seen was probably a den-sharing by two different mothers with two different litters. He further wrote that he had seen hyena mothers sharing dens with their adult daughters as well. Den-sharing is sometimes only temporary, with the two mothers switching to separate new dens after a while (and sometimes switching back). In general, they have a lot of den switching, particularly when cubs are young. However, both mothers still visit each other’s dens even after they have stopped sharing. And the older cub(s) often visit the dens of the younger too, till the older one is old enough to explore on its own. In other words, if there’s enough food going around, this would allow them to live close together.

Clearly, female striped hyenas and their cubs are fairly social when it comes to close kin. And these social systems not only help in raising and sharing litter responsibility, but also in higher safety for the young family... hence solitary scavengers adopt temporary sharing of their territory. And yes, I had got the answer to what had puzzled me so much when I first spotted the baby hyenas.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)


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