Captive Hyena Figures Out A Meat Puzzle Faster Than Its Wild Cousin

Studies of captive animals may not accurately reflect how they act in the wild.

Hyena Problem-Solving

Sarah Benson-Amram studies hyenas' puzzle-solving skills.MSU

When animal behaviorists want to study animal skills, they often work with animals living in the nation's zoos and aquariums, testing problem-solving and other traits. But a new study suggests this may not paint an accurate picture. Animals in captivity act much differently than animals in the wild, and their ability to face new problems is no exception.

Researchers at Michigan State University found dramatic differences in how wild and captive spotted hyenas figure out a puzzle problem. Sarah Benson-Amram, who led the study when she was a grad student, tested wild and captive hyenas on the same food puzzle. They were presented a steel box with some tasty meat inside, and they had to figure out how to open it.

The captive hyenas bounded into their enclosures and had no problem biting, chewing and opening the steel cages to get the treats. They were very creative, according to the study, trying various possible solutions. But the wild hyenas were much more timid. They approached the cage and sniffed it cautiously, looking around nervously before interacting with it at all.

The authors say the captive animals were more successful because they were more exploratory, and more willing to tackle the problem. They don't think it was because the captive animals had more time or energy to figure it out. Could it be that they were bored and welcomed a challenge for once? That's not clear, but the results do show that captive animals are not necessarily a useful analogue for studying their wild counterparts.