Innovation gives some hyenas an edge

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Inventive hyenas that come up with different ways to solve a problem are the most successful, new research shows.

For a study published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, wild hyenas in Kenya were shown steel puzzle boxes with raw meat inside. To get the meat, the hyenas had to slide open a bolt latch.

Even though most of the animals had many opportunities to open the box, only nine out of 62 hyenas succeeded. The successful hyenas tried more solutions, including biting, flipping, or pushing the box, than the ones that failed, says Sarah Benson-Amram, zoology graduate student at Michigan State University.

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Another requirement for success was not being afraid to approach new things. The wild hyenas had never seen a steel puzzle box before.

The hyenas that quickly contacted the box when they first saw it were more successful solving the problem than those hyenas that were slower to approach it. Although contacting unknown objects can be quite dangerous for wild animals, risk-taking also has some benefits.

Surprisingly, one trait that did not necessarily lead to victory was persistence, Benson-Amram says.

“While those who gave up quickly were more likely to fail, some hyenas that spent more time with the puzzle box appeared to get stuck in a rut and would often try the same solutions over and over again,” she says.

Like humans and other primates, hyenas have relatively large brains. “A likely benefit of large brains is the ability to think flexibly about new situations and come up with solutions to novel problems,” says co-author Kay Holekamp, Michigan State zoologist and co-principal investigator at the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

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