In Israeli desert, wolves and hyenas cooperate on hunts

These unlikely allies work together to brave the harsh conditions in Israel's Negev Desert. 

Sometimes the most unlikely friends can be the best allies, especially in the animal world. A recent study published in Zoology in the Middle East finds that grey wolves and striped hyenas in Israel’s Negev desert work together to survive.

Their friendship is made especially unlikely because prey is scarce in the desert. Usually, those conditions would push carnivores like the wolves and hyenas to compete, rather than collaborate. But something different is happening in the Negev.

Both animals are fairly large creatures. Striped hyenas have been known to kill large dogs. Grey wolves are known for killing other large creatures (such as coyotes) that get between them and their food. In the Negev, both animals have the same diet, which includes both plants and animals (in addition to insects and scavenged trash).

Despite the enmity that these conditions should produce, however, researchers Vladimir Dinets and Beniamin Eligulashvili noticed that hyenas and grey wolves were hunting together in packs.

“Animal behavior is often more flexible than described in textbooks,” said Dr. Dinets in a press release. “When necessary, animals can abandon their usual strategies and learn something completely new and unexpected. It’s a very useful skill for people, too.”

Researchers first noticed the collaboration when they saw hyena footprints intermingled with wolf prints. They recorded the same phenomenon four years later. According to a press release, the researchers are still not sure whether or not the collaboration is totally aberrant behavior for the two species.

This is particularly unusual, researchers say, because striped hyenas are typically solitary animals, whereas wolves usually travel in packs.

What benefits do the species gain from combining their resources?

Dinets speculates that the interspecies cooperation occurs due to the sheer scarcity of prey in the area. Each animal brings its own specialized skills to the relationship.

Researchers say that while wolves are better hunters than hyenas, due to the benefit of pack hunting techniques and inborn speed and agility, hyenas are better at scenting prey and performing dexterous tasks, such as opening cans and cracking bones.

Though Dinets and Eligulashvili say that it is difficult to find and study interspecies cooperation between carnivores like the striped hyenas and grey wolves, Dinets told the Washington Post such collaboration is certainly not unknown.

Ancient humans hunted alongside dogs, of course. Coyotes and American badgers also collaborate for food, and moray eels are particularly helpful allies, willing to collaborate with both coral trout and grouper.

Other mutually beneficial relationships in the animal kingdom are better known. Egrets and hippos are known for their friendship, with egrets providing de-lousing services to hippos, and hippos providing protection in return.

Zebras and ostriches also enjoy friendly large mammal-bird cooperation. With limited eyesight, zebras have a difficult time sighting enemies. Ostriches cannot smell their enemies. Together, the two animals offer each other protection by playing to their own strengths. 

Whether or not the wolf-hyena collaboration that Dinets and Eligulashvili discovered in the Negev is totally out of character for the species is still unknown.

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