"Long before it's in the papers"
March 17, 2016


Hyenas said to join wolf packs in unusual alliance

March 17, 2016
Courtesy of University of Tennessee at Knoxville
and World Science staff

An­i­mals of dif­fer­ent spe­cies some­times lean on each oth­er in times of ad­vers­ity—just as hu­mans do, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

Vlad­i­mir Dinets of the Un­ivers­ity of Ten­nes­see, Knox­ville, work­ing with Is­ra­el-based zo­ol­o­gist Be­ni­amin Eligu­lashvili, ex­am­ined an un­likely friend­ship be­tween striped hye­nas and grey wolves in the south­ern Neg­ev des­ert, Is­ra­el. 

A striped hyena at the Gir Forest National Park in India. (Credit: Dr. Shamshad Alam - Department of Wildlife Sciences, Aligarh Muslim University, India. CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dinets sus­pects the ex­treme des­ert’s par­tic­u­larly in­hos­pi­ta­ble con­di­tions—and a need for food—might have pushed the two en­e­mies in­to an un­usu­al al­li­ance.

“An­i­mal be­hav­ior is of­ten more flex­i­ble than de­scribed in text­books,” Di­nets said. “When nec­es­sary, an­i­mals can aban­don their usu­al strate­gies and learn some­thing com­pletely new and un­ex­pected. It’s a very use­ful skill for peo­ple, too.”

The study ap­pears in the jour­nal Zo­ol­o­gy in the Mid­dle East

Hye­nas and wolves are gen­er­ally not friendly to­ward oth­er car­ni­vores. Hye­nas fight ep­ic bat­tles with li­ons and Af­ri­can wild dogs, and take over kills that leop­ards and chee­tahs have made. They easily kill do­mes­tic dogs, no mat­ter the size, in one-on-one fights. Wolves hunt and kill lynx­es, coy­otes and even dogs, their clos­est rel­a­tives.

So Dinets and Eligu­lashvili were sur­prised when they saw striped hye­nas—little known, mostly sol­i­tary rel­a­tives of the bet­ter-known spot­ted hye­nas of Africa—in the mid­dle of grey wolf packs, mov­ing to­geth­er through a maze of canyons in the south­ern part of the Neg­ev des­ert.

The re­search­ers in­i­tially in­ferred this be­hav­ior from an­i­mal tracks. The sec­ond time, four years lat­er, they saw it di­rectly in the same ar­ea. They don’t know if the same an­i­mals were in­volved in both cases, or wheth­er the be­hav­ior was an aberra­t­ion or a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence.

Dinets the­o­rizes that both preda­tors tol­er­ated each oth­er be­cause they ben­e­fit from roam­ing the des­ert to­geth­er. Wolves are more ag­ile and can chase and take down all large an­i­mals of the re­gion, while hye­nas have an acute sense of smell and can lo­cate car­ri­on from many miles away. Hye­nas al­so are bet­ter at dig­ging out bur­ied gar­bage and crack­ing open large bones and tin cans.

Both the grey wolf (Ca­nis lu­pus) and the striped hy­e­na (Hy­ae­na hy­ae­na) are found in many ge­o­graph­ic ar­e­as and overlap in many parts of Asia. But the south­ern Neg­ev is the most ar­id place where both spe­cies are known to oc­cur.

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Animals of different species sometimes lean on each other in times of adversity—just as humans do, according to a new study. Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, working with Israel-based zoologist Beniamin Eligulashvili, examined an unlikely friendship between striped hyenas and grey wolves in the southern Negev desert, Israel. Dinets suspects that the extreme desert’s particularly inhospitable conditions—and a need for food—might have pushed the two enemies into an unusual alliance. “Animal behavior is often more flexible than described in textbooks,” Dinets said. “When necessary, animals can abandon their usual strategies and learn something completely new and unexpected. It’s a very useful skill for people, too.” The study appears in the journal Zoology in the Middle East. Hyenas and wolves are generally not friendly toward other carnivores. Hyenas fight epic battles with lions and African wild dogs, and take over kills that leopards and cheetahs have made. They easily kill domestic dogs, no matter the size, in one-on-one fights. Wolves hunt and kill lynxes, coyotes and even dogs, their closest relatives. So Dinets and Eligulashvili were surprised when they saw striped hyenas—little known, mostly solitary relatives of the better-known spotted hyenas of Africa—in the middle of grey wolf packs, moving together through a maze of canyons in the southern part of the Negev desert. The researchers initially inferred this behavior from animal tracks. The second time, four years later, they saw it directly in the same area. They don’t know if the same animals were involved in both cases, or whether the behavior was an aberration or a regular occurrence. Dinets theorizes that both predators tolerated each other because they benefit from roaming the desert together. Wolves are more agile and can chase and take down all large animals of the region, while hyenas have an acute sense of smell and can locate carrion from many miles away. Hyenas also are better at digging out buried garbage and cracking open large bones and tin cans. Both the grey wolf (Canis lupus) and the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) are found in many geographic areas and overlap in many parts of Asia. But the southern Negev is the most arid place where both species are known to occur.