Hyenas cooperate, problem-solve better than primates

By | October 1, 2009

Hyenas cooperate, problem-solve better than primates

September 28, 2009 By DeLene Beeland

Spotted hyenas may not be smarter than chimpanzees, but a new study shows that they outperform the primates on cooperative problem-solving tests.

Captive pairs of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) that needed to tug two ropes in unison to earn a food reward cooperated successfully and learned the maneuvers quickly with no training. Experienced hyenas even helped inexperienced partners do the trick.

When confronted with a similar task, chimpanzees and other primates often require extensive training and cooperation between individuals may not be easy, said Christine Drea, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University.

Drea’s research, published online in the October issue of Animal Behavior, shows that social carnivores like spotted hyenas that hunt in packs may be good models for investigating cooperative problem solving and the evolution of . She performed these experiments in the mid-1990s but struggled to find a journal that was interested in non-primate social cognition.

“No one wanted anything but primate cognition studies back then,” Drea said. “But what this study shows is that spotted hyenas are more adept at these sorts of cooperation and problem-solving studies in the lab than chimps are. There is a natural parallel of working together for food in the laboratory and group hunting in the wild.”

Drea and co-author Allisa N. Carter of the Univ. of California at Berkeley, designed a series of food-reward tasks that modeled group hunting strategies in order to single out the aspects of cooperative problem solving. They selected spotted hyenas to see whether a species’ performance in the tests might be linked to their feeding ecology in the wild.

…”I’m not saying that spotted hyenas are smarter than chimps,” Drea said. “I’m saying that these experiments show that they are more hard-wired for social cooperation than chimpanzees.”

via Hyenas cooperate, problem-solve better than primates | Source: Duke University (news : web)

One theme that shows up if you’ve been monitoring the progress of our research over the last five to ten years is that our anthropocentric ideas about intelligence miss a lot of subtlety in animal behavior. We now know that some fish have very good memories and learning abilities:

“The public perception of them is that they are pea-brained numbskulls that can’t remember things for more than a few seconds,” she told the Telegraph. “We’re now finding that they are very capable of learning and remembering, and possess a range of cognitive skills that would surprise many people.”

Laboratory tests on other fish have found that they can store memories for many months, confounding the belief that they forget everything after a few seconds. – telegraph

We know now that honey bees can count, dolphins can communicate and plan complex coordinated actions, understand sentences in sign language, … and so on.

With regard to animal cooperation, the behavior of hyenas makes sense because in nature there are two strategies of collaboration that out-perform all others:

… Tit-For-Tat (TFT) and Win-Stay,Lose-Shift (WSLS)… In a live webstream from the Royal Society in London Professor Martin Nowak of Harvard University explains why. To watch a recording of the webstream. …

Selfishness does not work in long run

Rationally speaking the best strategy is actually not to cooperate – you will always do better in the short-term if you act in pure self-interest. … However, over the longer term, the other team members will start to retaliate against you and everyone, you included, starts to lose out. –  bioteams

I find this comforting. If humans are smart enough, in an evolutionary sense, our long term forecast is very bright. As a species we will eventually discover that war is “country selfishness,” and it is not in our best interest. Too bad it is taking us so long to learn, but I think the Star Trek vision of the future were we learn to cooperate as a planet is our destiny.

From one perspective, each animal is the expert at being exactly what it is. I’d think we will eventually understand that for some, even being unintelligent is an evolutionary strategy.

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