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Recent studies have discovered that captive pairs of spotted hyenas work very well together in cooperative problem-solving tasks. One task given to them involved tugging ropes together in order to gain a food reward. What’s more, the hyenas that had more experience with these kinds of tests also helped out their less experienced partners complete the task.

Christine Drea, who lead the study, says that these findings show that social carnivores (those who hunt in packs) are good models for further studies on cooperative problem-solving and the evolution of ‘social intelligence’.  For chimps, other primates and animals to do similar cooperative tasks, it takes them very extensive training beforehand, whereas the hyenas needed no training and were able to finish their tests very quickly.

“The first pair walked in to the pen and figured it out in less than two minutes,” Drea said. “My jaw literally dropped.”

To take the study further, Drea conducted more experiments involving social factors, which produced both positive and negative results. If an audience of fellow hyenas were present during the test, the more experience hyenas would solve the problem faster. But, if two dominant hyenas were paired together, their performance ended up being rather poor, even though they were successful during other trials. In particular, the dominant females were very aggressive towards one another.

Another interesting thing to note is when the experienced, more dominate hyenas were partnered with those that were new to the test, they would willingly take the submissive role and follow the newer hyenas around. They did this until the new hyenas became more experienced with the process, then they would switch back and resume their more dominant role once more.

“One thing that was different about the captive hyena’s behavior was that these problems were solved largely in silence,” Drea said. “Their non-verbal communication included matching gazes and following one another. In the wild, they use a vocalization called a whoop when they are hunting together.”

Even though these predators are notorious for their laughter-like sounds, the extent of their intelligence and cooperative skills is no laughing matter.