“Animal behavior is often more flexible than described in textbooks,” said Vladimir Dinets, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “When necessary, animals can abandon their usual strategies and learn something completely new and unexpected. It’s a very useful skill for people, too.”
Striped hyenas are sort of mysterious animals that usually hang out alone (and, despite their dog-like looks, are closer relatives of cats than canines). They’re “highly intolerant of other large carnivores” and have been known to kill big, mean dogs, the study said. Grey wolves travel in packs and occasionally go hunting with other dogs, but usually prefer to kill them. Coyotes and jackals who get in their way are also dead meat.
In southern Israel’s Negev Desert, both hyenas and wolves hunt and scavenge animals, insects, plants and trash. Those things aren’t abundant, so the beasts are by definition competitors.
So Dinets was surprised when he came across overlapping, nearly-intact footprints of three grey wolves and one hyena in the Negev Desert near Eilat, Israel. They showed that the hyena was sometimes following the wolves and sometimes was being followed by them. A few years later, Beniamin Eligulashvili, a zoologist in Israel, witnessed a pack of seven wolves and one hyena cruising together in the same general area. “The hyena was not following the wolves, but moving in the middle of the pack,” said the study, which both men authored.
The most likely reason for the unlikely friendship, they think, is that the hyenas benefit from the wolves’ stronger hunting skills, and the wolves benefit from the hyenas’ superior sense of smell and other talents, such as breaking large bones, excavating garbage and ripping open tin cans.
While both species are found in many spots in the Middle East, Dinets said in an interview that he thinks this is probably a behavioral trait that exists in the Negev animals because there are so few other large mammals around. The wolves and hyenas “just need each other to survive, because food is so, so limited.”
Interspecies cooperative hunting, as that sort of union is known, is “much more common than people thought,” Dinets said. Coyotes and American badgers do it. So do coral trout and moray eels, and moray eels and grouper. And humans, for a long time, hunted alongside dogs.
They’re the exceptions, of course. But prosperity, they have all seemed to agree, depended on peace.