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Could hyenas teach us something about the way we communicate?

Kenna Lehmann

Think about the sound of a wolf howling or a dog’s howl – maybe even the giggle of a spotted hyena.

These animals cry out for a reason.

Kenna Lehmann, a zoology graduate student at Michigan State University, is currently studying these hyena sounds in Kenya, at the Masai Mara National Reserve. She’s studying how hyenas, being social hunters, find and catch their prey by way of communicating with each other.

She’s working with a group called the Cooperative Predator Vocalization Consortium.

“This is a group of people that have come together to collaborate and share ideas and are resources so that we can effectively study communication, cooperation and cognition in a number of different species,” she said.

Her focus, however, is on the hyenas. Following packs of them around with recording equipment, she records their vocalizations and compares them to the behavioral data she likewise takes down. She does all of this in order to attempt to understand what purpose each vocalization serves.

The plan is to eventually compare the communication data gained from observing the hyenas and compare that data to other species, like wolves. And also humans.

Credit Kenna Lehmann
Lehmann thinks hyenas are able to get past fear by way of their desire to cooperate and conquer.

“When you look at a big picture like that, you start being able to test hypotheses about how these behaviors and complex communication and complex cooperation, how they evolve,” she said. “Which is our ultimate goal. Because as humans, we do a lot of complex communicating and we don’t fully understand how we’re able to do that and how that evolved in us. So if we can look at these other animals, we’re hoping that it will help us understand that in the future.”

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