Rank-related partner choice in the fission-fusion society of the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

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When social partners vary in their relative value, individuals should theoretically initiate partnerships with conspecifics of the highest value. Here, we tested this prediction in a wild population of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Crocuta live in complex, fission-fusion societies structured by dominance hierarchies in which individuals vary greatly in their value as social companions. Because patterns of association among Crocuta reflect social preferences, we calculated association indices (AIs) to examine how social rank influences intrasexual partner choice among unrelated adults of both sexes. The highest-ranking individuals were generally most gregarious in both sexes. Females associated most often with dominant and adjacent-ranking females. Females joined subgroups based on the presence of particular conspecifics such that subordinates joined focal females at higher rates than did dominants. Dominants benefit from associations with subordinates by enjoying priority of access to resources obtained and defended by multiple group members, but the benefits of these associations to subordinates are unknown. To investigate this, we tested three hypotheses suggesting how subordinates might benefit from rank-related partner choice among unrelated females. We found that subordinates who initiated group formation benefited by gaining social and feeding tolerance from dominants. However, rates at which dominants provided coalitionary support to subordinates did not vary with AIs. Overall, our data resemble those documenting patterns of association among cercopithecine primates. We consider our results in light of optimal reproductive skew theory, Seyfarth's rank attractiveness model, and biological market theory. Our data are more consistent with the predictions of Seyfarth's model and of biological market theory than with those of skew theory.

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