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.
List of the Common Types of Hyena species
There are four recognized species of hyenas. These are:
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.
How long do they live
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.
What do they eat
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.
They are social creatures who live in groups called clans, which can have up to 80 members. These clans will mark off their territory with the help of droppings or other anal secretions. The male dominates most clans, but for the spotted hyena with the female in the lead.
When attacked by lions or wild dogs, the striped and brown hyenas play dead, while the spotted hyenas aggressively fight back. The aardwolf will try to mislead its foe through several techniques. It would either double back on its tracks, raise its mane to appear threatening, or even secrete a foul liquid from its rear end glands.
Hyenas are known for their vocalizations, especially their characteristic “laugh”. This laughing sound is made to alert other members of their clan of the location of food. Other vocal sounds include howling and wailing. The spotted hyena communicates the most through laugh, giggles, lows, grunts, groans, whoops, whines, and yells. On the other hand, the striped hyena appears comparatively less vocal, with its communication confined to howling, and chattering.
They have keen senses, including powerful eyesight, sharp hearing, and a strong sense of smell.
Hyenas have a set of strong teeth and jaws, allowing them to break bones easily and kill prey with a single bite. They have sharp claws, which they can retract back into their paws, helping them to tear flesh.
Aardwolves have a long, broad tongue which they use to eat insects.
Their pelage serves as an effective camouflage with their surroundings.
How do they give birth
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.
Hyena – FAQs
1. Do lions eat hyenas?
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.
2. Are hyenas dogs or cats?
Though they possess characteristics and similarities to both, hyenas are neither cats nor dogs, belonging in their separate category.
3. Do hyenas attack humans?
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.
4. Are there hyenas in America?
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.
5. What animals eat hyenas?
They have very few predators, with crocodiles among the few species to hunt them.
6. What do hyenas smell like?
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.
7. Are painted wolves hyenas?
While the painted appearance of these wolves makes them appear like hyenas, the two are not related.
8. Where do hyenas sleep?
As nocturnal animals, hyenas rest during the day inside shallow pools or under vegetation to avoid the harsh sunlight.
9. What are a group of hyenas called?
They are primarily called clans, but the term cackle is also used.
Hyenas have had varied depictions in different cultures. For instance, Middle Eastern literature portrayed them as stupid and treacherous, in Tanzania, Iran, and northern India, they are described as mounts for witches and in the East African myths of the Lungu people, the spotted hyena is a solar animal that brought the sun to the earth to warm it.
Humans and hyenas have had a primarily antagonistic relationship, with widespread stories of hyenas attacking sleeping humans. In Africa, people suffering from sleeping sickness who slept outside would be commonly attacked, while in Azerbaijan and India, children were often carried off by hyenas in the night.
These creatures have made several media appearances, such as the duo of Bud and Lou as Harley Quinn’s pets and, most famously, the hyenas in the movie The Lion King, who worked alongside Scar to overthrow Mufasa.