The hyena (or hyaena) is often portrayed as a sneaky scavenger in popular culture, but the reality of this fascinating creature is much more complex than its reputation suggests. Did you know that hyenas are actually accomplished hunters with complex social structures and unique physical adaptations? In this article, we’ll explore some little-known facts about hyenas that will challenge your preconceptions about these fascinating animals.
1. They are not related to dogs
Although hyenas may bear some physical resemblance to larger breeds of dogs, such as their square-shaped heads and robust bodies, they are not actually related to them.
In fact, they share a closer genetic ancestry with other cat-like mammals, including our feline friends – cats, civets, and mongooses. Despite some superficial similarities, hyenas are unmistakably their own separate and distinct group within the animal kingdom. Due to this distinct biology, these creatures are classified as Hyaenidae.
They are usually mistaken for African wild dogs. However, these two species have notable differences both in their physical characteristics and behavior.
|Hyenas vs African wild dogs|
|Hyenas||African wild dogs|
|Bite force:||1100PSI with 32 teeth||320 PSI with 42 teeth|
|Ear shape:||Slightly more pointed at the top||Round ears|
|Habitat:||Wide-open plains, semi-mountainous terrain, grasslands, savannas, and arid desert land||Savannas and grasslands but will travel to woodland and hilly surroundings|
|Behavior:||More competitive tendencies and may even turn against their own clan members||Prioritize the pack’s welfare over individual interests. They share resources and care for the sick or wounded members|
2. Hyena species
The Hyaenidae family includes four different types: the Brown hyena, the Spotted hyena, the Striped hyena, and the Aardwolf. All of these species of hyaenas share similar physical characteristics such as big heads, strong jaws, and lengthy front legs.
– The Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) is known for its characteristic giggling sounds. It is the biggest among all hyena species, measuring between 1.2 to 1.8 meters in length and weighing around 40 to 86 kg. These social creatures are found in groups called clans (or cackles) that can consist of up to 80 individuals.
– The Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena): the size of this species is about 1 to 1.15 meters in length and 26 to 41 kg in weight. Living in small groups, these animals are primarily scavengers and tend to be silent, except for a cackling sound that can escalate into a howl.
– The Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) is the second largest species of hyena. It has a size of 1.3 to 1.6 meters in length and weighs around 34 to 72.6 kg. They typically live alone, but establish clans consisting of up to 10 individuals at times.
When threatened, they can raise the hair on their backs and increase in size as a last resort to scare off large predators that are too close to escape from.
– The aardwolf (Proteles cristata), once classified in its own family (Protelid), is now recognized as a member of the hyaenas family. However, it’s less known than the other members.
Although it resembles striped hyenas with a thick mane stretching from head to tail, the aardwolf is much smaller. It’s the smallest hyena species with a size of 85 to 105 centimeters in length and weighs 8 to 14 kg.
Unlike other species, the aardwolf only eats termites and can consume up to 300,000 termites each night. They are monogamous and live with their offspring.
3. They are fearsome hunters
Hyenas are one of the most dangerous predators in Africa. They are often perceived as scavengers due to their tendency to pilfer food from lions, they even eat dead lions. Nevertheless, they are fierce nocturnal hunters in the wilderness. In fact, 70-90% of their diet consists of direct kills, and they exhibit remarkable versatility and success when it comes to hunting.
With a strict social hierarchy, they are capable of working together in packs to take down challenging prey. By relentlessly pursuing their target, they can run for several miles at speeds of up to 37 mph (60 kph). Spotted hyenas are known to conquer prey many times their own sizes, such as giraffes, porcupines, hippos, buffalo, snakes, and wildebeest. Even lions find it tough to hunt these animals!
In less than 30 minutes, a clan of hyaenas can devour an entire zebra, including its bones. However, this feeding frenzy comes with a cost. These animals engage in fierce fights amongst themselves over the remains of the meal, often resulting in severe injury or death.
Both lions and hyaenas hunt for the same prey, which can lead to competition for the same food source. In such situations, there’s gonna be a fight. The lions usually come out as victors, injuring or killing the hyenas. However, if a hyena is threatened, it can call for help from its group, and together they may be able to fend off a lion. Killing a lioness typically requires around ten of them, while the number required to overpower a male lion doubles to twenty.
Interestingly, contrary to the notion that lions provide for scavenging hyaenas, research has shown that lions are more likely to scavenge from hyena kills due to the hyena’s higher hunting success rate.
In addition, they eat each other, particularly when they are juveniles.
In Africa, hyenas are the most frequently encountered carnivorous animals. They inhabit diverse ecosystems ranging from North Africa to the southernmost part of the continent. The striped ones can also be found in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.
Different species can be found throughout Africa. Their habitats include forests, mountains, grasslands, deserts, and riverine bush. While spotted and brown hyenas inhabit sub-Saharan Africa, striped hyenas commonly live in the dry, rocky areas of northern Africa. Aardwolves, on the other hand, like bushlands located in the eastern and southern regions of the continent.
5. They’re super smart
Despite being stereotyped as stupid and dumb, hyenas have surprising intelligence that rivals that of many other wild animals in Africa. Researchers are still trying to figure out the limitations of their intellect.
These animals reside in intricate societies with complex social structures. They are capable of using tactics such as trickery and distraction to obtain food and mating opportunities. They can also solve difficult puzzles and open lunchboxes, sometimes with more efficiency than primates.
If you have a chance to observe spotted hyenas in their natural habitat, you’ll see their inquisitive nature. These animals have been seen using basic tools to escape from cage traps, further showcasing their cognitive abilities.
These creatures have proven to be superior to chimpanzees in group problem-solving tasks, according to experiments. Not only can they count, but they also possess the ability to assess the number of rival clan members and strategize accordingly. In addition, males seeking to join a new clan will conduct a rapid headcount and choose to join the group with the fewest male members.
6. They make different sounds
These mammals interact with clan members up to 5 km afar using a diverse range of communication methods including signals, sounds, and postures. These communication techniques assist them in coordinating their movements when hunting or keeping track of their fellow members.
Among many sounds of hyenas are howling screams, wailing calls, growlings, and the famous laughing sounds from the spotted. The intricate social structure is the reason why the spotted has such an exceptional vocal range compared to other carnivores. Because of this insane giggle, the species is also called the laughing or the giggly hyaenas.
They use their laughter to convey their excitement or dissatisfaction. Each individual will have a distinct laugh that reveals its age and position in the group. In addition to laughter, spotted hyenas emit a “whooping” sound that echoes through the night in the areas where they are active. This sound resembles a wolf’s howl and serves as a long-distance tool that can carry over 3 miles and also identifies the individual’s identity.
In conclusion, these animals can release about 11 different forms of vocal communication. Some scientists believe that this number could be up to 28. Despite the exact number, their sophisticated and diversified noises is a testament to their intelligence and complexity.
7. They are sociable
Spotted hyenas are highly sociable animals that live in social groups known as clans, which can comprise up to 130 members. However, unlike wolves or lions, these animals are seldom seen together as a whole group. Instead, they tend to be solitary or found in small groups, only congregating periodically.
The clan’s hub of activity is the den, where cubs are raised, and clan members gather. Hyaenas use a pungent secretion from their anal glands to mark and patrol their territories by placing the substance on grass stalks along the boundaries. In addition, members of the clan use designated “latrines” to deposit their feces, which also serve as territorial markers.
8. Females run the world
When watching the movie Lion King, you may observe that Shenzi, the female spotted hyena, seems to lead the pack due to her superior intelligence compared to Banzai and Ed, the males in the group. Interestingly, this dynamic is also reflected in the wild.
Hyaenas females have three times the amount of testosterone compared to the males. This makes them more muscular, bigger, stronger, and more aggressive. The societies of these creatures are matriarchal, similar to elephant herds.
The clan consists mostly of related females who hold the highest positions of power. Their young will hold a rank directly subordinate to their mother while non-native males will join the clan after reaching sexual maturity from other clans.
Since the females rule the clan, they will have the right to choose their mate and access food first. Newborn cubs even outrank immigrant males, whose social status is determined by their arrival order.
On the other hand, in clans of brown and striped hyenas, males have a greater dominance and the alpha males lead the clan.
9. Their jaws are powerful
These species eat a diverse diet that includes animals of varying sizes, carrion, bones, plant material, and other animal excreta. They possess one of the strongest jaw muscles in proportion to body size compared to other mammals.
Their bite is capable of both killing and shattering bones. To achieve this, spotted hyenas have developed immensely powerful masseter muscles that generate tremendous bite force in a particular area of their teeth. They can split through bones approximately 2.5 inches in diameter by exerting over 1,100 PSI, or approximately 9,000 newtons.
This ability permits them to get the nutrient-rich marrow inside the bones, which most other animals cannot. Due to the high mineral content of the bones, their droppings are noticeably white and chalky.
In addition to scavenging animals, these animals are known to opportunistically consume crops such as fruits, as well as small prey such as beetles, frogs, and grasshoppers.
10. The females have a pseudopenis
Distinguishing between male and female spotted hyenas solely based on their appearance can be challenging. This is due to the fact that female spotted possess genitalia, known as penile-clitorises, that closely resemble and function like a male’s penis. This similarity is also attributed to the presence of pseudoscrotum which closely resemble male anatomy.
Females use this reproductive organ for urination, copulation, and parturition. However, the extended birth canal of the females causes a significant number of fatalities during the birthing process, and cubs may also suffocate in the canal.
Despite having up to 80 members in their clan, hyaenas typically mate with members of other clans to protect the genetic pool.
After mating, the females will give birth to litters of two to four jet-black cubs. While the cubs of other cat species are born helpless and blind for a few weeks, the cubs are born with open eyes, teeth, and strong muscles.
During the first six months of their lives, these cubs rely entirely on milk and may continue nursing for an additional year. The milk produced by spotted hyena mothers is exceptionally high in fat and protein – richer than that of any other land-based carnivore.
The females of this species possess only two nipples, which results in cubs having to compete for nourishment from their siblings. This often results in death. In litters bigger than two, the weaker cubs are often neglected and frequently die of malnutrition. This contributes to a staggering 60% mortality rate among hyaena cubs before they mature.
After five months, the cubs start consuming meat from prey near the den. By the age of one, they trail their mothers during hunting and scavenging expeditions. In the interim, a caretaker adult watches over them in the den.
These cubs achieve sexual maturity between the ages of 2 and 3 years. Males have to depart from their kin and fight for acceptance into a new pack, which is frequently lethal. Their fate will be decided by the alpha female of that clan.
Typically, these creatures have a lifespan of approximately 12 years. Nonetheless, in their natural habitat, spotted hyenas can survive into their 20s, rendering them among the longest-living land carnivores. On the other hand, brown species usually have a shorter lifespan. The longest-lived spotted hyena on record was in captivity, and it lived for an impressive 41 years and 1 month!