The Spotted Hyena

(Genus Crocuta Crocuta)

Spotted hyenas can look like large dogs from a distance, though they are unrelated to canines. The spotted hyena is the sole member of the genus crocuta, but one of three members of the Hyaenidae family. The other members of the Hyaenidae family are the brown hyena and striped hyena. Spotted hyenas are also called ‘laughing’ or ‘giggling hyenas’ due to their distinct, vocalizations. They are found in Sub-Sahara Africa with the largest ‘clans’ are now found in protected areas such as Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Physical Description of the Spotted Hyena

At first glance, the spotted hyena can appear clumsy when it runs with its shorter hind legs, giving it it’s distinct hyena gait. However, the hyena is built for fast and long distant running; it can run at over 60kms an hour for more than several km when hunting.

The spotted hyena is the second largest four legged predator in Africa. Its large head, thick neck and a long, heavy, muscular body are adapted for felling prey. Powerful jaws that are capable of crushing elephant bones give the hyena the most brutal bite of any mammal.

The paws of the spotted hyena paws has four toes and non-retractable nails. The thick, rough fur has a tawny or gray color, covered in dark spots that vary from one member to another. Its ears are rounder than the other hyenas, well adapted to hear hunters feeding on carrion even from 10km away. The hyena has a very rounded rump to prevent predators like lions gaining a grip on it.

The female has a pseudo-penis, which can grow to 7 inches (17.78 centimetres) which is used for urinating, copulation and giving birth. Over 60% of babies suffocate in the narrow birth canal during child birth. Conversely, the infant can tear the pseudo-penis killing the mother.

Are Female Spotted Hyenas More Aggressive Than Males?

Dominant females will pass higher androgen levels to their offspring than lower-ranking mothers which is believed to make them more muscular and masculine in behaviour. Scientists found much higher blood levels of a steroid hormone called androstenedione, typically a male hormone in females making them more aggressive.

Notwithstanding their physical attributes, hyenas are intelligent animals; CT scans have revealed they have larger than normal forebrains. Read on if you want to discover how they put their intelligence to clever use.

Habitat and Diet of the Hyena

These curious carnivores live in the south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. They can live in savannahs and swamps, and in semi-arid areas and mountainous woodland areas. Instead of resting in dens, adult spotted hyenas relax in caves or small pools or under bushes or scrub—anywhere they can find shade during the heat of the day.

Hyenas use watering holes to cool off or hide extra food. Spotted hyenas can be active day and night, depending on their needs and when humans are present, but they are usually nocturnal.

Spotted Hyena
Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena: The Hunter

Part of the hyena’s success is it is a formidable hunter and scavenger. Lions and hyenas battle over the same food in overlapping areas, which often puts them at conflict with each other. Male lions in particular will kill hyenas of all ages and hyenas will kill baby lion.

Zoologist Hans Kruuk found that in Tanzania during the 1970s, lions scavenged spotted hyena kills more than hyenas scavenged kills by lions. It is more than capable of hunting bison, antelope, though will eat small lizards, amphibians birds and lizards.

Three or four hyenas will pick out an individual of a herd and chase it relentlessly over a long distance if needed, until the prey is beaten down. Hyenas have an unattractive reputation for being brutal in the kill; whereas lions will largely suffocate their prey before eating, hyenas do not. Adapted, sharp carnassials behind their crushing premolars mean they don’t have to wait. Females will always eat first at carcasses, while adult males will often be last in the pecking order.

Both hyenas and lions mark and set up a territory, and like lions, cackles of hyenas are regularly on patrol. Faced with a lion, the spotted hyena cries for aid from other hyenas. Sometimes strength in numbers can mean dominance, especially over female lions, though when bigger male lions are nearby the cackle will flee.

Family Life of Hyenas

The social structure of hyena is complex. There will be up to a hundred members in a clan. Spotted hyenas are members of matriarchal culture. The females are bigger and, on average, more forceful but can be gentle and attentive mothers. Deserted anteater burrows or warthog burrows make good dens for giving birth. The mother will carry babies for approximately 110 days, giving birth to one or two cubs in a litter per year.

The low-ranking female cub’s rate is higher than the highest-ranking adult male. Lower-ranking males must remain on the clan’s periphery and are only permitted to enter while hunting or battling against another family or lions.

Spotted Hyenas Giggle
Spotted Hyenas Giggle

Spotted Hyena Vocalizations

Spotted hyenas have distinct vocalizations for different purposes. They are the most vocal mammals in Africa, with over 11 unique sounds reported by scientists and 14 ways of communicating with other members of the cackle.

The famous laughter, or giggle sound actually means it’s being chased or attacked, usually in a dispute over a kill. Grunts are warnings to unwelcome hyenas while groans are greetings. The whoops that can be heard over great distances can mean they clan is getting ready to hunt or fight or sometimes just calls of melodrama.

The “whoop” call can be used to locate cubs, advertise territories, or get the clan together. Spotted hyenas can tell which hyena is making a distinct whoop.

Hyenas Cackling in Kruger National park

Fantastic Facts About The Spotted Hyena

  • Groups of spotted hyenas are called clans or cackles.
  • The milk of the spotted hyena has the highest protein content of any land carnivore.
  • The larger developed front brain is put to clever use by hyenas. Scientists have observed hyenas using distress calls, indicating enemies are close as a form of lying to protect their food.
Spotted Hyena Map of Territories

Conservation of the Spotted Hyena

Although spotted hyenas are not under pressure at the moment, things could shift. Drought may have dramatic impacts on the food chain, from herbivores to carnivores. The conflict between humans and hyenas is often common whenever they fight for resources.

Least concern by the IUCN
Least concern by the IUCN

Deforestation puts humans and hyenas closer together, and hyenas that prey on animals are unlikely to be viewed as good neighbors. Spotted hyenas are still shot, poisoned, and captured, even in their range’s protected areas. Some hyenas spotted are even shot as “fun” target practices for unscrupulous hunters. Education is required to dispel the weak public image of this valuable carnivore.

All said the IUCN classes spotted hyenas as of least concern due to high numbers alive in the wild.

Hyenas in Literature

They were never afraid to hunt baboons. Often the hunters would take on the smaller, weaker member of a group. The terrifying Queen hyena, being the most dominant and devilishly dangerous. Those hyenas downed poor young ones by exhausting them, before finishing them with deadly force.

“This clan is ‘ungry,’ baboon, and you will pay a ‘eavy price for letting us find you!” called another hyena from the back, glowering at Papio. The cackle formed a double line. Broad necks and pointed teeth could be seen through shadow. Together their outline bulged like a monstrous predator. Together, their black eyes appeared liquid. Not flames. Oil that could smother and suffocate. The liquid said: no survivors. The call to let loose the oil rested with the queen. Her eyes gave the order.

E.G Price, The Zambezi Allies

Female Dominance Over Males

Q & A

Which order to spotted hyenas belong to?

Spotted hyenas belong to the order Carnivora

Are spotted hyenas only meat eaters?

Spotted hyenas are classed as omnivores. they will eat fish and vegetable matter when meat is scarce

Are male hyenas larger than females?

Female spotted hyenas are larger than males

How many spotted hyenas are there in the wild?

There are estimated to be between 27,000 and 47,000 spotted hyenas in the wild.

Are spotted hyenas more intelligent than monkeys?

Some scientists claim that hyenas are as smart or smarter than primates.

What order are spotted hyenas classed in?

Spotted hyenas are in the class of carnivora.

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