Lions vs Hyenas

I have always loved and been passionate about Hyenas. When I was a child that was the animal I always related to and grew up to learn more about. Most people I know have always loved lions. The kings of the jungle and the regal aura they represent – from the Lion King to Coming to America (the king had a lion skin wrapped around him). I appreciate lions, but my heart has always been with Hyenas.

Two predators at the top of their food chains. They hunt the same prey, and battle each other on the same hunting ground. Each with different social hierarchies. However, this can almost be broken down entirely to the classic battle of Cats vs Dogs. In a Smithsonian Channel documentary, Killer IQ: Lions vs. Hyenas (2015), the biggest cats were tested against the biggest dogs to determine social intelligence and problem solving skills. The documentary was broken into two parts, Predator Games and Predator Challenge. The results may surprise some, as watching the ways animals learn can be amazing. It was a true look at ethical experimenting and studying of animal behavior.

In this documentary, lions and hyenas were tested using puzzle boxes with Unlearned Reinforcers (naturally reinforcing) – food. The test I found most interesting had to do with learning to open a locked box using team work and how they differed in both strategies and consequences.

Tale of the Tape

Cover image from Smithsonian Channel “Killer IQ: Lion vs. Hyena” website.

Lions are taught to us to be a apex predators (no natural predators, the top of their food chain) that live in a pride (10-45 members) and engage in cooperative hunting. They’re idolized as the ultimate representation of cats. However, they are the only “cat” that lives in a social group like a pride. Most cats, especially big cats, hunt independently – such as tigers, another apex predator, which lives and hunts solitary. Lions share the responsibilities of hunting and caring for their cubs. Lions are thought of as stealthy and silent, yet strong and ferocious.

Image of Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology Christine Drea with hyena from Smithsonian Channel “Killer IQ: Lion vs. Hyena.”

Hyenas are typically described as scavengers that hunt in groups (up to 80 members). They make loud noises that sound like laughter and are the enemy of lions. However, not all hyenas are laughing hyenas, although they do make whooping sounds to communicate. Each clan of hyenas has different whoops and languages. And the sounds they make are an audible language they use to communicate a variety of messages, primary the presences of food, danger, and hunting strategies. While hyenas do scavenge, their is up to 95% hunted fresh meat. Also, they do typically hunt they same prey as lions, they are not each other’s predator, and usually only attack each other when fighting over food. Socially, they have a set hierarchy, with pups inheriting their social rank from their mother at birth.

How They Stacked Up
“Predator Games”

Test 1 – Puzzle Box

The animals put in pairs of 2, and were then presented with a metal box that had food inside. To open the box, one member of each pair had to pull a rope on each side of the box at the same time. Each trial was 15-minutes in duration.

Group 1
– 2 females (Olivia/Livy and Ginny) of the same Pride

Trial 1
Livy and Ginny immediately began to circle the box. After being unable to figure out the box, Ginny gave up and laid down. Near the 15-minute mark, their trainer walked over and showed Livy how to open the box, and both lions ate the food.

Trial 2
The lionesses immediately walked up to the box and pulled the ropes, but were unable to make a single coordinated pull. They took several attempts to pull at the same time. At the 4-minute mark, they pulled at the same time, the box opened, and they ate the food.

Group 2 – 1 male (Bobcat) and 1 female (Gabby) of a different Pride

Trial 1
Bobcat immediately jumped on the box. Once the lions looked over the box, they both pulled the ropes and opened the box within 40-seconds.

Trial 2
Bobcat became aggressive and possessive of the box, and Gabby began acting submissively, angling her body away from Bobcat. Unable to open the box, Bobcat became aggressive towards the cameraman. After 7-minutes, they then opened the box 5-different times. Each time, Gabby allowed Bobcat to take the food for himself.

Group 1 – Gina (leader of clan), with 3 unnamed clan members

Trial 1 (trials not shown as separate, just one segment)
Hyenas were allowed to examine the box, but their jaw strength is stronger than a lion, tiger, or bear; this resulted in the Gina pulling the box too hard, and yanking it from it’s location and dragging it. The box was then anchored to it’s spot, to stop the hyenas from running around with the box. Once the box was anchored, the opened the box with minutes (number not stated), and shared the food equally. The 3 members of Gina’s clan watched as she interacted with the box.

Group 2 – 2 males (Nieba and Keto), from a separate clan of 7 hyenas. Keto is a low ranking member of the clan.

Trial 1
Both hyenas immediately walked up to the box and opened in less than 1-minute.

Trial 2
Same result as Trial 1, quickly pulled ropes and opened the box in less than 1-minute.

Test 2 – Intruder

Previous research showed that lions are capable of counting, as they count the number of intruders and members of other prides prior to an interaction/altercation. This is done via vocalizations communicated aloud to other pride members.

Dark haired (mane color) male lion – stuffed non-moving figure, with yak hair used for the mane. Dark maned males are more aggressive, stronger, and desirable in the lion community. They are considered superior males.

Group 1 – 1 female (Ginny) and 1 male (Vyetz)
The lioness approached the new male lion, and the male lion followed and examined the intruder. The male refused to attack the dark-maned intruder lion. When the intruder lion was loaded into a truck and removed, Ginny followed and ran after the vehicle to be with the dark maned lion, essentially switching allegiances.

Group 2 – 1 male (Bobcat) and 1 female (Gabby)
Bobcat (a darker maned lion) immediately walked up and attacked the dummy. Ginny joined in and helped kill the dummy lion by attacking the throat while Bobcat attacked the genitals.

A strange whoop sound recording is played, indicating a strange hyena in the territory.

Group 1
The clan member Teka goes looking for the intruder. When he can’t find the intruder, the clan assembles together prior to going out looking as a unit.

Test 3 – Deception

Previous research showed the hyenas are capable of using false information for their own benefit. Evidence of deception is a cognitive ability used by only humans, chimps, baboons, and ravens. Research conducted in 1972 indicated that low ranking hyenas can also use deception, which may indicate advance cognitive ability.

Buckets were set up with food placed in 1 bucket, but not the rest. The animals must open the correct bucket to access the food within.

Dominate members of the clan were locked away, while clan member Nieba was taught how to use the buckets in this challenge. The other members watched Nieba’s training from a distance. Once he was shown to consistently find food in the correct buckets, the training was completed until the trial the next day. Nieba will be monitored to see if he teaches the higher ranking clan members how to open the buckets, or if he keeps the information to himself.

Trial 1
Nieba was trained to open a learn a new bucket held the reward (food), without the higher ranking clan members watching this training. Empty buckets were scented to avoided hyenas using their sense of smell to figure out the challenge independently. This meant the other clan members must rely on Nieba for help/information on how to obtain the food.

Once released into the trial, the higher ranking clan members met without Nieba. They went and smelled the buckets without Nieba, while Nieba watched from a distance. Bongo (clan member) went to the bucket he watched Nieba trained on the day prior, figured out how to open the bucket independently, but the bucket was empty. Once the higher ranking members left the area, Nieba walked up to the new correct bucket and obtained the food. Nieba successfully waited and acted as if he did not know where the food was, or how to obtain the food, to obtain the food for himself.

Lions have not been tested for deception prior to this, per the documentary. It is thought that deception is not beneficial to the lion lifestyle.

Trial 1
The trained lion is a lioness named Echo. She was paired with her Pride mate, Ishka (white lioness). Once paired, Echo immediately approaches the bucket she was trained to open, but is unable to figure out how to open it again. When Ishka approaches, Echo becomes physically aggressive towards Ishka. Ishka then waits near Echo, laying down while Echo tries to open the bucket. Echo initially opened the wrong bucket, found it empty, then opened the correct bucket. The trainer and researchers stated that once Ishka approached, Echo became impulsive and less thoughtful of her actions.

Overall Results

Test 1 – Puzzle Box
The hyenas were better at figuring out the challenge and working together as a unit. They worked as a single unit, both males and females, and once solved, they not only shared the reward (food) equally, they taught the next group how to work the challenge and get their food.

The lions needed human assistance to figure out the challenge, and once they learned to solve the challenge, the food was rationed based on gender. With 2 female lions, they food was shared equally, but when a male and female lion were paired, they food was taken by the male.

Test 2 – Intruder
Lions differed on their approaches to intruders.
For lionesses, if the intruding male was more desirable physically, and their accompanying male did not attack, they went with the new male. If the intruding male was less desirable, and their accompanying male attacked, they attacked with him, and expressed the same level of aggression. For male lions, if the intruding male appeared more dominant, they did not attack. If they appeared less dominant, they attacked quickly.

Hyenas worked as a group to search out and attack the intruder.

Test 3 – Deception
Hyenas were observed to engage in deception when obtaining food independently of the clan. Which was good as a sign of advanced cognitive ability, as only humans, chimps, baboons, and ravens share this ability. However, it showed that despite sharing food equally, this did not apply to food found independently.

Lions used brute force to avoid sharing food they obtained independent of the pride. As stated in the documentary, the lion who gets to the food first has the rights to the food.

Overall Impressions

As someone who hopes to get involved in applied animal behavior, I did have some issues with how loosely the trainers were allowed to use their bias during testing. I have watched this documentary numerous times, even purchasing digital copies, and even when I’ve watched with people not trained in animal research methods, they would comment that the trainers were skewing the results. Specifically, when the lion trainers saw the hyenas performing better, they would help the lions figure out the challenges. Since figuring out the challenges can’t be unlearned, it made the following trial results skewed in comparison to the hyenas, who did not receive help. You can tell from the commentary that the lions are expected to breeze through the challenges, and the hyenas are not. But, realistically, this is understandable, as the trainers and researchers have spent years and decades devoting their lives to each other these animals, and non appeared to be trained behaviorists.

I will do another post on the second part of this documentary, Predator Challenge.


2 thoughts on “Lions vs Hyenas”

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