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Watch: Gang of hyenas mobs lions to steal their food

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Mobbing a group of hungry lions is a pretty risky move, but it can pay off big for hyenas, new research shows.

The study offers a rare glimpse into cooperative behavior during fights between two apex predators: spotted hyenas and lions.

The mob sometimes starts small, but more hyenas enter the fray as the battle intensifies.

“When hyenas mob during hyena-lion interactions, there is significant risk of injury by participating in this cooperative behavior,” says Kenna Lehmann, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University and a coauthor of the study in Current Zoology. “However, when they gang-up like this, they are more likely to win control of the food. This suggests that cooperative behavior increases fitness in hyenas.”

Interestingly enough, hyenas will even mob lions when no food is present. The research team found that hyenas are more likely to mob lions when there are more hyenas present, regardless of food presence, fight location, and how many lions are involved.

As this video shows, the interactions are intense.

The mob sometimes starts small, but more hyenas enter the fray as the battle intensifies. Even against three lions, the smaller hyenas group as a single unit, giggling, growling, and snapping like a hyena-headed hydra. Then, resembling a well-drilled military unit, they creep forward, drive the larger predators off a carcass, and claim a feast for themselves and their clan.

Lions and hyenas have long competed directly and indirectly for resources. Even though cooperative mobbing behavior has been documented in birds and other mammals, this is the first research to fully describe this interaction.

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Analysis of these complex interactions requires a large sample size, which can be obtained only from detailed long-term observational data, Lehmann says. Having access to the Mara Hyena Project, the team was able to evaluate 27 years of data, covering the territories of seven hyena clans at two study sites in Kenya.

“This work would not have been possible without the long-term database,” says Tracy Montgomery, a doctoral candidate and study coauthor. “Not only did it allow us to demonstrate that mobbing likely increases fitness in hyenas, but it also will help us identify factors that will help predict whether this cooperative behavior will occur. It also has set the stage for additional studies.”

Future research will dissect the elements of the mob, such as identifying the participants and their sex and rank. The researchers also will try to determine if all animals are sharing the workload or if there are regular cheaters, interlopers that skip the fight but share in the feast.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Michigan State University