- A-Z Animals
Hyenas are carnivorous beasts found chiefly in Africa and are known for being scavengers. With only four living members of their genus existing in the present times, they are among the smallest family of mammals alive, the fifth smallest to be exact. They have often been thought to be related to cats or dogs, sharing traits of both, but are, in fact, not so. Despite their fearsome appearance and bad reputation for attacking, they play a vital role in the ecosystems where they live, as they consume detritus and other dead material.
There are four recognized species of hyenas. These are:
Size: Length: 2.3 – 5.4 ft (70.1 – 164.2 cm)
Weight: 17.6 – 190 lb (8 – 86 kg)
Teeth: Their teeth are strong, providing more biting power to the jaws.
Body and Coloration: Hyenas have short torsos, with large ears and high withers. They have a massive and wolf-like build, but their hindquarters are more slouched than wolves. The forelegs are high, while the hind legs are very short and have thick and short necks. Hyenas have four digits on each paw and sport bulging paw pads with non-retractable claws. Sexual dimorphism exists as males tend to be larger than females except for the spotted hyena. Here, the female exceeds their male counterparts in size, and even dominates the latter.
Their pelage is sparse and coarse, with poorly developed or absent underfur, except a rich mane of long hair which can be seen running from the head or shoulders. Most hyenas have a tan-colored body covered with stripes. However, in the spotted hyena, the stripes are replaced by spots as evident from its name.
The various species of hyenas can be found in different parts of Africa. Spotted hyenas reside south of the Sahara desert, throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Brown hyenas are located in a small range in Southern Africa between the Angola-Namibia border and the Orange River in South Africa.
Whereas, striped hyenas can be seen over an extensive range in the north and northeast Africa, from the Middle East to southern Siberia as well as the Indian subcontinent.
Aardwolves are found in two separate locations, one in central Tanzania, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, while the other in Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, northeastern Uganda, and southern Zambia.
They are extremely adaptable, with hyenas found in forest edges, grasslands, savannas, sub-deserts, and even mountains at an elevation of about 13,000 feet.
All species of hyenas live for 12 years on average, though there are reports of hyenas who have lived up to 21 years in the wild.
While primarily known for their scavenging behavior feeding on their preys’ leftovers, hyenas are also skilled hunters attacking animals they can bring down. These include large ungulates like antelope, wildebeest, and zebras and smaller prey like birds, insects, lizards, and snakes.
Striped hyenas tend to scavenge, while spotted hyenas are more likely to work in a pack to overcome prey. The aardwolf is mainly insectivorous, feeding on termites.
Hyenas mate in short periods with small intervals, with the process of copulation being awkward and challenging at times. This is because of the high levels of the hormone androgen in female hyenas, making their genitalia grow up to 7 inches, becoming even larger than the males in some cases. It requires practice and several tries for the male to learn the correct position needed for breeding. As a result, pairs tend to be monogamous, though both sexes occasionally mate with individuals other than their partners.
The birth of hyena cubs is an extremely painful process due to the size of the birth canal. This has led to many cubs and some first-time mothers dying during the process. After the cubs are born, the care they receive varies from species to species. While the male of the spotted hyena takes no part in raising the cubs, the other three do contribute towards the growing process of the little ones.
As the mother passes her high androgen levels on to her cubs, the juvenile males try to mount females from as early as 2 months old.
According to the IUCN, the brown and striped hyenas are categorized as “Near Threatened” or “NT”, while the spotted hyena and aardwolf are “Least Concern” or “LC”. It is estimated that there are around 10,000 adults left in the world.
While lions kill hyenas and regularly come into conflict with them, they do not generally eat them. Lions often have to compete over prey with hyenas, and as a result they both end up in fights with each other that can end either way given the situation.
Though they possess characteristics and similarities to both, hyenas are neither cats nor dogs, belonging in their separate category.
Although hyenas are generally wary of humans, there have been several instances where hyenas have attacked humans. They primarily target women, children, and people with disabilities like big cats. However, the spotted and striped hyenas can bring down an adult male. Aardwolves and brown hyenas don’t attack humans.
The only known hyena species to have ever lived in America is the running hyena which went extinct 780,000 years ago. There have been eyewitness accounts of a cryptid called the “American Hyena”, but these have been theorized to be hybrid or freak wolves.
They have very few predators, with crocodiles among the few species to hunt them.
Hyenas secrete a paste from their scent glands which they smear over grass. This “scent” acts as a form of identification and smells like cheap soap or mulch.
While the painted appearance of these wolves makes them appear like hyenas, the two are not related.
As nocturnal animals, hyenas rest during the day inside shallow pools or under vegetation to avoid the harsh sunlight.
They are primarily called clans, but the term cackle is also used.