For most people, hyenas conjure up images of an intimidating troupe of mischievous, cackling, cowardly and pretty ugly creatures from the animated movie The Lion King. But did you know that these fascinating and intelligent animals have a remarkable social hierarchy and that they are at the top of the predator pecking order, outranked only by the lion?
While it may seem that all hyenas look the same, there are, in fact, four different species including the aardwolf, the spotted, brown and striped hyena. The most common by far is the spotted hyena which can be found in the grasslands, semi-desert, woodlands and mountains of Africa.
Spotted hyenas – one of the most misunderstood creatures in the animal kingdom – are average in size, measuring up to roughly 90 centimeters and weighing between 40 and 80 kg’s. Females (who are the dominant sex) are larger than their male counterparts and can be up to 14% heavier! Traditionally known as the hunters and scavengers of the bush, they are nocturnal animals that are prepared to eat almost anything to survive – including skin and bones and even the droppings of other animals!
Spotted hyenas have the most recognizable appearance with their short sandy-colored fur, peppered with dark spots. Their tails are brown and bushy, and they are identifiable by the short mane on the nape of their necks. Hyenas have dog-like features, but they are, in fact, not related to dogs at all. They do however have similar greeting ceremonies.
Some more interesting facts about hyenas: Did you know that hyenas were domesticated in ancient Egypt and raised as a source of good protein? Hyenas live in clans, usually of up to 80 animals and very cleverly use the strength of the clan to aid in their stealthy hunting abilities. These carnivores are mainly known as scavengers, but they are also adept hunters with incredibly strong teeth and jaws for crushing bones. In many African regions, hyenas have been known to take down large animals such as zebra and gemsbok with ease. They have also adapted to the dry African climate and can go for several days without drinking any water.
The members of the clan are intimately connected and even when alone in the wild, individual hyenas will call to each other to check how each member is doing with cackles, whoops and yells. This calling has become one of the species’ trademarks and is why they are known as ‘laughing hyenas’.
Once they have caught their prey, they don’t linger over their meal! Instead, hyenas are notoriously fast eaters, often polishing off entire carcasses of adult antelope in under a quarter of an hour! They don’t have many enemies with only lions willing to take them on. Hyenas are also known to have cannibalistic traits, often attacking and eating their own species, especially when they are still youngsters.
Within the spotted hyena species, there are several different clans who are in competition with one another. Clans fight for the best territory and the best prey which means that each member of the clan has an integral role to play in this highly evolved social system in protecting and defending the clan’s interest. Each hyena has a definitive rank with the alpha female and adult females falling to the top of the leader board. In fact, the highest ranking male is still ranked below the lowest ranking female. This is important because in the hyena world, the higher your rank, the greater your share of the kill!
Much of the hyena population in Africa is sadly on the decline. While those in protected and conservation areas are safe, others in the western parts of the continent are fighting extinction mainly due to livestock farmers. Many farmers view hyenas as a threat and often poison or trap them as a preventative measure.
Today there are several measures in place to increase their numbers, including educational campaigns on alternative measures of protecting farm animals. We truly hope that these incredibly intelligent predators yet highly misunderstood creatures are protected so that future generations may observe them in the wild.