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The Extreme Sibling Rivalry of Hyena Cubs

Diane Du Plessis

Author: Diane Du Plessis - 20 February 2024

Last Update: 8 February 2024

Part of the African Safari Collection

Few animals in the animal kingdom elicit as much intrigue as the African hyena. Behind the image of mischievous jokesters, the hyena is more complex than most people think. Hyenas aren’t part of the Canidae family tree, but their packs have a social structure.

Hyenas work for their social standing from the moment they’re born. Spotted hyenas, the most popular of the Hyanidae family, often give birth to twins. The sibling rivalry between two hyena cubs will determine their chances of survival.

In this article, we uncover the facts about hyena cub behavior and the complexities of sibling rivalry in wildlife.

Sibling Rivalry Between Hyena Cubs

The average hyena litter will consist of two cubs. Interestingly enough, spotted hyenas are the only ones of the hyena family born with open eyes, unlike brown and striped hyenas.

As soon as they’re born, the cubs fight over who gets to nurse first. Because hyena cubs are born at one-hour intervals, the first-born twin usually has a higher competitive advantage. Fluctuations in the abundance of prey also affected how hyena mothers lactate.

The sibling dynamic expressed during the nursing period will carry on as the siblings grow older, with there being a definite “winner” and “loser.” The subordinate sibling learns early enough to submit to their more dominant twin, establishing a more stable hierarchy.

Siblicide in Nature

Life in the Serengeti is difficult, even for the fiercest of carnivores. For hyenas, it’s not uncommon for cubs to kill their weaker siblings when there’s a shortage of food. In some cases, hyena mothers would leave their cubs for days to forage.

If their mother didn’t have enough milk, a fight for food and, ultimately, survival would ensue between the siblings. Wounds inflicted by the dominant sibling were rarely lethal, but they were enough to prevent the subordinate cub from feeding.

Coupled with the lack of maternal provision, malnutrition and the onset of infection from wounds would lead to sickness and eventual death for the weaker sibling.

Hyena Clan Dynamics

Spotted hyenas live in a matriarchal society, meaning the females outrank the males. Females have more testosterone in their bodies and are often more aggressive and assertive.

Low-ranking males submit to the matriarch and must stay on the outskirts of the clan. This unique social structure, a hallmark of hyena society, can be witnessed in the wild expanses of Botswana and the Kruger National Park.

This matriarchal system is also evident during the nursing period. If a litter consists of a male and a female, the female sibling usually ends up being the more dominant one. The daughters have more of a competitive nature and are more capable of overthrowing their brothers.

A mother hyena carries her cubs
A mother hyena carries her cubs

The world of hyena cub behavior is a complex system that sets the foundation for their roles in hyena societies. Sibling rivalry between hyena cubs often means a fight for survival. If you want to learn more about the matrilineal society of hyenas, why not see it for yourself?

Discover Africa has more than 20 years of experience in planning luxury wildlife experiences and safari tours in Africa. Get up close and personal with these majestic animals in locations like Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Contact us today to start planning your safari adventure.

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