Health, demography, ecological dynamics and anthropogenic effects on spotted hyenas in the Serengeti National Park

We study the behaviour, ecology and health of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) in the Serengeti National Park since 1987, and currently hold detailed information on more than 2600 individuals in three clans. 

Project details
Duration: since 1987
Third-party funded: yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Ecological DynamicsDept Evolutionary Ecology, Dept Evolutionary Genetics, Dept Wildlife Diseases, Dept Reproduction Biology, Junior professor Parasite Host Interactions
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s): Sarah Benhaiem, Marion L. East (all: Dept Ecological Dynamics), 
Leibniz-IZW Project Team: Morgane Gicquel, Stephan Karl, Sonja Metzger, Marwan Naciri, Aimara Planillo, DagmarThierer, Miguel Veiga,  (all: Dept Ecological Dynamics), Oliver Höner (Dept. Evolutionary Ecology), Alexandra WeyrichJörns Fickel (all: Dept Evolutionary Genetics), Gábor Czirják (Dept Wildlife Diseases), Jella Wauters (Dept Reproduction Biology), Emanuel Heitlinger (Junior professor Parasite Host Interactions), Heribert Hofer (Director)
Consortium Partner(s):

Weizmann Institute of Sciences (Israel), McGill University (Canada), University Potsdam, Helmholtz-Zentrum Munich, Centre D’Ecologie Fonctionnelle & Evolutive (CEFE-CNRS) Montpellier (France),Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (Tanzania)

Current Funding Organisation: German Science Foundation (DFG), Leibniz Competition
Research Foci: Understanding traits and evolutionary adaptations
Understanding wildlife health and disturbed homeostasis
Unterstanding the environmental context
Developing theories, methods, and tools


This fascinating mammal has several unusual traits: female social dominance, an erectile ‘pseudopenis’ in females, an exceptionally long lactation period and intense sibling competing. It is a keystone carnivore in the ecosystem, which both hunts and scavenges.

Our study population is unique in that it experiences major fluctuations in prey abundance throughout the year because of the migratory movements of its main prey (e.g. wildebeest) and the low abundance of resident herbivores. We discovered that Serengeti hyenas solve this problem by commuting long distances to forage throughout the year. Individuals leave their clan territory and travel to areas up to 70 km to locate areas with large aggregations of migratory herbivores where they feed before returning to their clan territory. Commuting hyenas may get killed or severely injured by illegal wire snares set by bushmeat hunters along some borders of the Park.

All these aspects make hyenas an interesting model species to study social behaviour, sexual conflict, maternal effects, host-pathogen interactions, immunology or endocrinology. In the context of global change, the commuting system of Serengeti hyenas is particularly valuable to study how animals cope with a variable and uncertain resource. It also allows investigating the specific dynamics of social interactions when the availability of social partners fluctuates over time.

We currently focus on three main topics:

- Causes and consequences of infections
- Developmental plasticity and social environmental effects
- Impacts of human activities

We apply non- and minimally invasive techniques in the field to collect samples and base most of our analyses on longitudinal data.  Our collaborations with the Departments of Reproduction Biology, Wildlife Diseases and Evolutionary Genetics permitted the development of several faecal assays for hyenas (e.g. endocrinology, immunology, epigenetics). We use a wide range of biostatistical models to analyze our long-term datasets.

We currently collaborate with several excellent researchers to study the microbiome, epigenetics and metabolomics of spotted hyenas, or to develop demographic models.

Selected Publications

Ferreira SCM, Torelli F, Klein S, Fyumagwa R, Karesh WB, Hofer H, Seeber F, East ML (2019): Evidence of high exposure to Toxoplasma gondii in free-ranging and captive African carnivores. INT J PARASITOL PAR 8, 111-117. doi:10.1016/j.ijppaw.2018.12.007.

Ferreira SCM, Hofer H, Madeira de Carvalho L, East ML (2019): Parasite infections in a social carnivore: evidence of their fitness consequences and factors modulating infection load. ECOL EVOL 9, 8783-8799. doi:10.1002/ece3.5431.

Marescot L, Benhaiem S, Gimenez O, Hofer H, Lebreton JD, Olarte-Castillo XA, Kramer-Schadt S, East ML (2018): Social status mediates the fitness costs of infection with canine distemper virus in a social carnivore. FUNC ECOL 32, 1237-1250. doi:10.1111/1365-2435.13059.

Benhaiem S, Marescot L, Hofer H, East ML, Lebreton J-D, Kramer-Schadt S, Gimenez O (2018): Robustness of eco-epidemiological capture-recapture parameter estimates to variation in infection state uncertainty. FRONT VET SCI 5, 197. doi:10.3389/fvets.2018.00197.

Benhaiem S, Marescot L, East ML, Kramer-Schadt S, Gimenez O, Lebreton JD, Hofer H (2018): Slow recovery from a disease epidemic in the spotted hyena, a keystone social carnivore. COMMS BIO 1, 201. doi:10.1038/s42003-018-0197-1.

Olarte-Castillo XA, Hofer H, Goller KV, Martella V, Moehlman PD, East ML (2016): Divergent sapovirus strains and infection prevalence in wild carnivores in the Serengeti ecosystem: a long-term study. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163548.

Hofer H, Benhaiem S, Golla W, East ML (2016): Trade-offs in lactation and milk intake by competing siblings in a fluctuating environment. BEHAV ECOL 27, 1567-1578. doi:10.1093/beheco/arw078.

Davidian CE, Benhaiem S, Courtiol A, Hofer H, Höner OP, Dehnhard M (2015): Determining hormone metabolite concentrations when enzyme immunoassay accuracy varies over time. METHODS ECOL EVOL 6, 576-583. doi:10.1111/2041-210X.12338.

Pribbenow S, East ML, Ganswindt A, Tordiffe AS, Hofer H, Dehnhard M (2015): Measuring faecal epi-androsterone as an indicator of gonadal activity in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). PLOS ONE 10, e0128706. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128706.

Benhaiem S, Hofer H, Dehnhard M, Helms J, East ML (2013): Sibling competition and hunger increase allostatic load in spotted hyaenas. BIOL LETT 9, 20130040. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2013.0040.

East ML, Kurze C, Wilhelm K, Benhaiem S, Hofer H (2013): Factors influencing Dipylidium sp. infection in a free-ranging social carnivore, the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta). INT J PARASITOL-PAR 2, 257-265. doi:10.1016/j.ijppaw.2013.09.003.

Benhaiem S, Hofer H, Kramer-Schadt S, Brunner E, East ML (2012): Sibling rivalry: Training effects, emergence of dominance and incomplete control. P ROY SOC B-BIOL SCI 279, 3727-3735. doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.0925.

Benhaiem S, Dehnhard M, Bonanni R, Hofer H, Goymann W, Eulenberger K, East ML (2012): Validation of an enzyme immunoassay for the measurement of faecal glucocorticoid metabolites in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). GEN COMP ENDOCR, 178, 265-271. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2012.05.006.