Although somewhat dog-like in appearance, the hyaenas are placed in a family of their own and are more closely related to cats than dogs!
Species: spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), brown hyeana (Hyaena brunnea), aardwolf (Proteles cristata) and striped hyaena (Hyaena hyaena)
IUCN Status: the brown hyana and striped hyaena are both Near Threatened
Habitat: Grassland and flat open terrain
Distribution: throughout much of Africa and eastwards through Arabia to India
Size: Spotted hyaena: 70 – 92 cm, Striped hyaena: 60 – 80 cm, Brown hyaena: 70 – 80 cm
Weight: Spotted hyaena: 44 – 64 kg, Striped hyaena: 22 – 55 kg, Brown hyaena: 40 – 44 kg
Life Span: 12 years in captivity up to 25 years in the wild
Gestation: Approximately 110 days
Photo: Charles J Sharp
Smithsonian Magazine (May 2008), by Steve Kemper, Who’s Laughing Now? (Online) Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/whos-laughing-now-38529396/ [Accessed 24/11/20]
What type of animal are Hyaenas?
The hyaena is a fairly large carnivore, heavily built and hairy, with large powerful jaws and sloping hind quarters. Although somewhat dog-like in appearance, the hyaenas are placed in a family of their own and are more closely related to cats than dogs.
The Family Hyaenidae consists of three 'true' hyaenas and one closely related species known as the aardwolf (earth wolf). The aardwolf is a small and insect-eating member of the hyaena family and it is found on the plains of southern Africa.
The three other species are the spotted hyaena, brown hyaena and striped hyaena. The striped hyaena has a wider distribution than the other species as it is found in northern Africa, southern Asia and India.
The hyaena is almost wolf-like in appearance, but with longer front legs than hind legs, giving them their distinctive downward sloping backs. Most species have a mane of hairs running all down their back. They have four digits on each paw, with short, blunt, non retractable claws.
The well known 'laugh' belongs to the spotted hyaena, although it also has a number of other calls including a particularly blood curdling howl. All hyaenas are fairly noisy animals with a range of sounds varying from grunts to screams.
Photo: Geoff Gallice
Food and Hunting
The aardwolf is the only remaining descendant of a group of dog-like hyaenas, the rest of which died out during a period of climate change 5 to 7 million years ago. It eats insects, such as termites and their larvae. Its sticky tongue has adapted to endure the bites of termites and means the aardwolf can eat up to 300,000 termites in one night!
The striped, spotted and brown hyaenas are descendants of the cat-like, ‘bone crushing’ hyaenas and they hunt in packs, bringing down prey with their teeth. They also scavenge on carrion (the remains of animals killed by other predators or that have died of old age).
Of these three 'true' hyaenas, it is the spotted species which is most likely to attack humans, and there are many cases of humans maimed or killed by these animals. A pack of spotted hyaenas will attack even a large animal like a zebra. The hyaena will seize the leg or flank of the prey, then hold on with its powerful jaws until the animal is brought down.
The striped and spotted hyaenas have very strong front limbs, well adapted for digging. Often, if the hyaena has killed or scavenged more food than it can eat, it will bury it and dig it up at a later date. This habit of digging up caches of meat has even sometimes attracted them to graveyards and native burial grounds, where they will dig up and consume recently buried bodies.
Equipped with its tremendously powerful jaws, the hyaena has little difficulty in cracking even the strongest of bones. It is not at all fussy about its food and will eat the vilest of rotting flesh. The highest ranking female in a pack will be granted the best pieces of meat, whereas the lowest ranking hyaenas will be left to scavenge leftover pieces of bone.
The fact that the hyaena is such an unfussy eater is good for its chances of survival and it is therefore not currently endangered as a species. Much of its success is also due to its ability to work within a team, both when hunting and when sharing food. It lives in groups of up to 100 animals, with a dominant female presiding over the group.
Hyaenas do not pair bond. When a female is ready to mate, this might be with any pack member she chooses. Female hyaenas make males who join a pack wait for several years before permitting mating.
Pregnant hyaenas go off alone to give birth and then move their cubs back to the pack’s den once they are around a month old. The cubs from several females will grow up together in one den and the adults are very protective of the cubs.
Female hyaenas have only two nipples, so they tend to have no more than two cubs per litter. In the event that they give birth to three, the weakest, least aggressive one usually dies.
Male striped hyaenas help to raise their young by bringing them food, though male spotted hyaenas do not. This is in part because striped hyaenas are born with their eyes closed and remain helpless for some days, whereas spotted hyaenas are born alert, with their eyes open and their teeth already beginning to break through. Hyaenas do not develop their bone crushing jaw strength for two or three years, however, so females care for the cubs for longer than many other predators, making sure that they are granted time to feed at a scavenged kill by fighting off other members of the pack.
Hyaenas and Humans
Known by humans as sneaky and cowardly scavengers, hyaenas do not have the same proud reputation as other predators, such as lions or wolves. Their scraggy appearance, creepy cackling ‘laughing’ call and reputation for digging up bodies from graves has given them a bad reputation that has been spread through years of folklore. In Disney’s The Lion King, they are "slobbery, mangy, stupid vultures”.
However, hyaenas actually hunt and kill 95% of the food they eat, scavenging only a small part of their diet. In fact, biologist George Schaller, studying lions on the Serengeti in the 1960s, discovered that lions scavenged more kills from hyaenas than vice versa.
In normal circumstances, hyaenas will steer well clear of humans during the daytime, though they may gain confidence during the night. Only striped and spotted hyaenas have ever been known to attack and eat humans, which they have done since prehistoric times. Human hair has been found in fossilised hyaena dung dating back 257,000 years! In times of war, hyaenas will scavenge on human remains and it is believed that this has caused them to develop increased hunting behaviours towards living people. Most attacks on humans have occurred while people are sleeping outdoors.
Hyaenas are used for food and for medicinal purposes in Somalia, though they are considered to be haraam (a non permitted, sinful food) in Islamic beliefs. The Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that eating different parts of a hyaena’s body would ward off evil and help people fall in love and be more fertile.
Despite their bad reputations, hyaenas are intelligent creatures who exhibit highly social and protective behaviours in their family groups. Researchers have found that individuals have unique personalities. Furthermore, the hyaena’s scavenging ways serve nature's purpose by helping to dispose of animal bodies. This not only cleans up the terrain but helps to prevent the spread of insects and disease, making hyaenas vital members of their ecosystems.