Spotted hyenas adjust their foraging behaviour in response to climate change

by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research
April 4, 2022

Spotted hyenas adjust to a decreased presence of migratory prey in their territories induced by climate change. This is the key result of a paper recently published in the scientific journal Ecosphere. A team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), Germany, and the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), France, investigated the relationship between rainfall volume and migratory herbivore presence in hyena clan territories in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, and the responses of lactating hyenas to recent changes in the climate-prey relationship. Using an observation-based dataset spanning three decades, they showed that the substantial increase in annual rainfall during this time halved the presence of migratory herds inside the hyena clan territories, but did not affect the ability of female hyenas to access their prey and successfully nurse their young. This suggests a high plasticity of foraging behaviour of hyenas in response to changing environmental conditions.

It is crucial to understand the mechanisms and extent to which animals in diverse ecosystems are resilient to climate change. Changes in the timing or amount of precipitation can alter vegetation growth and hence the distribution of migratory herbivores, such as the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and plains zebras (Equus quagga) in the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania, East Africa. Climate change may thus ultimately influence the location of profitable feeding areas for predators, such as spotted hyenas, who feed on these herbivores. A recent paper reveals that spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) can adjust their foraging behaviour to shifts in migratory prey presence in their territories that are linked to recent changes in pattern and amount of rainfall.

Scientists from the Leibniz-IZW and CEFE analysed data from a long-term project on three clans of spotted hyenas in the centre of the Serengeti National Park. The three clans have been monitored continuously from 1990 to 2019, on a near-daily basis. Weather data show that total annual rainfall substantially increased in the Serengeti over these three decades. Simultaneously, the presence of migratory herds in hyena clan territories essentially halved. “To assess how the hyenas responded to these changes in rainfall patterns and prey abundance in their territories, we focused on maternal den attendance – the presence of lactating hyenas with entirely milk-dependent offspring at communal dens”, says Morgane Gicquel, first author of the paper and doctoral student at the Leibniz-IZW.

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