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Higher Social Status Means Healthier Lives... for Wild Animals

Mar 12, 2015 05:04 PM EDT
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Higher social status has its perks, and new research shows that one of them is a healthier life... as least for wild animals.

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at Michigan State University have shown that social and ecological factors can affect overall animal health. Specifically, they chose to focus on wild spotted hyenas in Kenya.

"High-ranking members in hyena clans reproduce more, they live longer and appear to be in better overall health," co-lead author Nora Lewin said in a statement. "If you want to see the hierarchy of spotted hyenas, throw down some fresh meat near them. It's quickly apparent who's dominant and who's not."

To better understand the privileges that come with being at the top of the totem pole, Lewis and her colleagues observed hyenas' social structure firsthand in Kenya, and also analyzed more than 25 years of data.

For example, when it comes to aging, hyenas that are more highly ranked have the upper hand. The team found that these higher-ranking hyenas had longer telomeres than their subordinates. Telomeres are caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect chromosomes from deterioration, and serve as important signs of aging and stress in many species, including humans. That is, shrinking telomeres indicate that a cell is going to die soon, promoting the aging process.

"This work shows, for the first time, the effects of social rank on telomere length in wild mammals," Lewin explained. "This enhances our understanding of how social and ecological variables may contribute to age-related declines of hyenas, and in organisms in general."

Interestingly, alpha females of each clan had the longest telomeres. However, the length was relative to each individual clan. It turns out being the top dog has many benefits.

The findings were published in the journal Biology Letters.

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