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Social status changes hyenas’ epigenetics

An animal’s position in hierarchical hyena packs influences her gene expression

by Fionna Samuels
April 8, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 11


A group of hyenas stands together in a green field with small trees in the background.
Credit: Sarah Benhaiem/Serengeti Hyena Project
A group of hyenas known to Serengeti Hyena Project researchers.

For a spotted hyena on the Serengeti, social status is everything. Clans adhere to a strict hierarchy of dominance among adult females. Now, a group of researchers has found social status is more than superficial; it stretches into the animals’ DNA (Commun. Biol. 2024, DOI: 10.1038/s42003-024-05926-y).

Many traditional methods for collecting DNA are too invasive for wild hyena populations, says lead researcher Alexandra Weyrich from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, Halle-Jena-Leipzig. “So, we sample the feces.”

In collaboration with Weyrich, researchers from the Serengeti Hyena Project—who know each individual animal by sight—scooped the poop for later analysis.

“What we found is quite stunning,” says Weyrich: there is a distinct correlation between social status and DNA methylation. Adding methyl groups to certain regions of DNA changes how those regions are transcribed and can act like a genetic on/off switch.

Forty-four genes are associated with the 147 differently methylated regions they found, says Weyrich. Some of these genes regulate energy conversion and appear more methylated in low-status females. This indicates that the animals are processing energy differently than their social superiors, says Weyrich, perhaps because low-ranking hyenas are forced to travel farther for resources.

“I think the data they found was quite solid and interesting,” says Michael Skinner, an epigeneticist at Washington State University. To him, this is another study demonstrating that epigenetic processes control most biological phenomena.



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