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What Hyenas Can Tell Us about the Origins of Intelligence

A long-running project in Africa challenges the social brain hypothesis


By David Z. Hambrick on May 30, 2017

Physical similarities aside, we share a lot in common with our primate relatives.
For example, as Jane Goodall famously documented, chimpanzees form lifelong bonds
and show affection in much the same way as humans. Chimps can also solve novel
problems, use objects as tools, and may possess theory of mindan understanding
that others may have different perspectives than oneself. They can even outperform
humans in certain types of cognitive tasks.
These commonalities may not seem all that surprising given what we now know from
the field of comparative genomics: We share nearly all of our DNA with chimpanzees
and other primates. However, social and cognitive complexity is not unique to our
closest evolutionary cousins. In fact, it is abundant in species with which we
would seem to have very little in commonlike the spotted hyena.
For more than three decades, the Michigan State University zoologist Kay Holekamp
has studied the habits of the spotted hyena in Kenyas Masai Mara National Reserve,
once spending five years straight living in a tent among her oft-maligned subjects.
One of the worlds longest-running studies of a wild mammal, this landmark project
has revealed that spotted hyenas not only have social groups as complex as those of
many primates, but are also capable of some of the same types of problem solving.
This research sheds light on one of sciences greatest mysterieshow intelligence
has evolved across the animal kingdom. According to the social brain hypothesis,
intelligence has evolved to meet the demands of social life. The subject of many
popular articles and books, this hypothesis posits that the complex information
processing that goes along with coexisting with members of ones own
speciesforming coalitions, settling disputes, trying to outwit each other, and so
onselects for larger brains and greater intelligence. By contrast, the cognitive
buffer hypothesis holds that intelligence emerges as an adaption to dealing with
novelty in the environment, in whatever form it presents itself.
The social brain hypothesis is well-supported in research on primates: The more
social a primate species, the bigger its brain and the smarter it tends to be.
However, Holekamps work challenges this hypothesis as a general explanation for
the evolution of intelligence. In a 2012 study carried out in the Masai Mara
reserve, Holekamp and former graduate student Sarah Benson-Amram devised a puzzle
box to measure hyenas ability to innovatethat is, to solve a problem they had
never before encountered. In each trial, a piece of raw meat was placed in the
puzzle box, and the hyenas task was to slide a latch, and then to swing open a
door to get the food. Across 62 hyenas, the best predictor of success was what
might be considered an adaption to dealing with novelty in the
environmentexploratory behavior. Hyenas that employed a range of different
behaviors in the first trial to size up the puzzle box were ultimately more likely
to figure out how to open it than their less curious counterparts. On the other
hand, there was no correlation between social rank and success.
More recently, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, Benson-Amram, Holekamp, and colleagues used the puzzle-box paradigm to
test innovation ability in 140 zoo-dwelling animals representing 39 species of
mammalian carnivore, from the polar bear to the snow leopard to the fennec fox.
Controlling for body mass, brain size predicted percentage of successful trials
(bigger brain, better performance). However, there was no correlation between the
average group size for the animals and success. In fact, despite their solitary
nature, bears were the most adept at opening the puzzle box. By contrast, the
highly social mongooses, who live in mobs with an average size of nearly 30, were
among the worst performers. While not necessarily ruling out the social brain
hypothesis, these findings provide support for the cognitive buffer hypothesis. In
future work, Holekamp and colleagues plan to more directly test the cognitive
buffer hypothesis by comparing the innovation ability of hyenas living in wild
versus urban environments.
So, the story of how intelligence has evolved across the animal kingdom is likely
complex. Intelligence may have evolved in one way in primates, but in other ways in
carnivores and other animals. With extinctions occurring across the animal kingdom
at a rate estimated to be a thousand times greater than the natural rate, research
like Kay Holekamps groundbreaking study of the spotted hyena is all the more
urgent to fill in the missing pieces of this puzzle.