Findings: Rumble in the jungle

October 18, 2002

It is a battle that never ends, a constant conflict that pits two of Africa's most feared predators against each other on an almost daily basis.

Yet although a team of zoologists has found groups of hyenas and of lionesses were pretty evenly matched in the particular corner of Africa studied, there are indications that the mere presence of a particularly tough individual could be enough to break the other side's resolve.

Postdoctoral researcher Oliver Höner and colleagues at the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, have observed the two species in the Ngorongoro Crater of northern Tanzania since 1996.

The area is divided between seven clans of spotted hyenas and three to four prides of lions.

Both species killed roughly equal numbers of wildebeest and they then engaged in a fight to keep control of the carcass.

If the hyenas outnumbered the lionesses by three to one or more, they held the field and won the food whether it was theirs to start off with or not. Otherwise, the big cats got to feed.

As each stand-off developed, the hyenas summoned reinforcements by whooping loudly.

But if a single male lion joined the pride - something that rarely happened - the hyenas slunk off regardless of how many they had managed to muster.

Dr Höner said the scientists had a hunch that hyenas may have been able to recognise especially aggressive individuals among the lions, which might have influenced whether they stood their ground or not.

Physical conflict was rare, with one side or the other backing down before any damage was done.

Preliminary findings were revealed at the fourth international symposium on physiology and behaviour of wild and zoo animals in Berlin last week.

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