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The Fascinating World of Hyenas: Dispelling Myths and Secrets

Welcome to the interesting world of hyenas, a species that is rife with myths and misconceptions.

We shall reveal the mysteries of these amazing creatures, offering information on their social organization, behavior, and ecological significance.

Hyenas are not merely scavengers, as is commonly believed; they are also incredibly effective hunters, able to take down enormous game thanks to their teamwork in the hunt.

Another fascinating feature to investigate is the hyena's distinctive social structure. 

A matriarchal hierarchy dominates it. The dominant female of a hyena clan rules over the males, who have a subservient position in the pack. We obtain a better grasp of their civilization by exploring its complexities.

spotted hyena crocuta crocutaSpotted hyena - Crocuta crocuta

Very few animals have been more confusing than this African animal.

Scavenger or hunter? Females with penises?

This confusion is clear from the first questions we often hear about hyenas: are they dogs or cats, and who are they related to?

Adding to the confusion, we must clarify why female hyenas have male genitalia.

What is a hyena?

They are not members of the dog or cat families. Instead, they are so unique that they have a family all their own by the name of Hyaenidae.

They are related to civets and mongooses.

The African animals are large, doglike carnivores. They have a powerful build with shoulders higher than hind legs.

They have bushy tails and big ears.

Hyenas have 32 to 34 teeth. This includes conical premolars that are specifically designed to crack bones.

There are three species of hyenas. They are the spotted, brown, and striped hyenas.

is a hyena a canine?

Where do hyenas live?

The Striped Hyena lives anywhere from central Tanzania through dry savanna zones. They are also found in deserts and the Mediterranean.

The brown hyena lives south of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. 

The spotted hyena lives everywhere south of the Sahara, except in rainforests and true deserts.

In South Africa, hyenas are found in the Northern, Northeastern, Eastern, and Northwestern regions of the country.

Lion King fame

Shenzi, Banzai and, Ed are a trio of villainous spotted hyenas featured in the Disney animated film The Lion King.  Shenzi was the leader of the clan. Whoopi Goldberg voiced her.

What do hyenas eat?

In the Savuti 80% of their kills are Burchell zebra.

They have an exceptional ability to eat and digest bones.

Their strong jaws and bite force allow them to scavenge carcasses other predators leave behind. 

This gives them an advantage over their competitors.

They also can produce milk for their offspring for more than a year.

They are also the only carnivores that can eat hides.

is a hyena a dog?

They usually go for large and medium-sized antelope. During the hunt they will select young or weakened targets.

They have been known to tackle anything from mice to baby elephants.

Are Hyenas dangerous to humans?

They are known to be the predators most likely to attack humans sleeping outside in the open.

The staple diet consists of blue wildebeest, gemsbok, zebra, and impala.

In the Kruger National Park kills are -

  • blue wildebeest 15%,
  • kudu 15%,
  • impala 15% and
  • steenbok 22%.

In the Kalahari kills are

  • gemsbok 50%,
  • blue wildebeest 18%,
  • eland 9% and
  •  springbok 6%.

Food is sometimes stored in caches. They often choose shallow water for this purpose, where jackals and vultures are unable to get at them.

Are hyenas scavengers or also efficient hunters?

The hyena will scavenge and hunt when given the opportunity.

They are also accomplished hunters and they get up to 75 percent of their food from their kills.

They are designed with the extra stamina required for long and relentless chasing of their prey. This is possible because they have large hearts relative to their body size.

Statistics show: 

In the Kruger National Park, they kill 50% of their prey.

In the Kalahari game Reserve and Chobe National Park in Botswana, they kill 70-80% of their prey.

hyena factsHyenas can smell the dead and decaying flesh of an animal from 4 kilometers away

They are also renowned and highly effective scavengers.

Carrion is detected by the smell from as far as 4 kilometers downwind.

They find carcasses by scent and by the noises made by other predators.

They also keep a lookout for vultures.

hyena dietIt is sometimes easier to let something else do the hard work of hunting the prey and dine on leftovers!

If they are harassed at a kill by superior numbers of other predators, they may cut their losses by tearing a piece off the carcass and running away with it.

Lions' vs Hyenas

On a one-to-one basis, hyenas can displace any predator except a lion from a kill.

Lionesses and cubs will give way if they are outnumbered four to one.

Usually, lions cannot be displaced from a carcass by a hyena if an adult male is present.

However, if they are heavily outnumbered, even lions give away their food to them.

Do hyenas hunt for their food?

These African animals are less skilled at stalking than cats. Instead, they rely on their speed and stamina to run down their prey.

They can sprint at 60 km/h and keep up a speed of 40 to 50 km/h over 5 km.

They kill their prey by biting chunks out of it and targeting major blood vessels as it runs.

hyena eating habitsUsually, adult antelopes can escape from a single hyena but when they collaborate their efforts they are much more successful

The victim dies from shock and loss of blood as it is torn apart and pulled down.

Most healthy adult antelope can escape from a single hyena. If they work together as a team, it dramatically increases their hunting success.

If two of them hunt wildebeest calves they are five times as successful as one operating alone.

One of the team will distract the mother while the other grabs the calf.

Single hyenas will typically hunt springbok.

A group of three can target wildebeest and if they operate in groups of four, they can tackle eland and gemsbok.

Where clans are large and there is competition from other predators, they gorge themselves as fast as possible.

One of them can eat 15 kg of meat at a sitting.

They are very noisy when they feed and often chase each other around at meals.

They do not however fight over food as lions do.

Are these animals very territorial?

Yes, they are indeed territorial.

They mark their area by anal gland pasting especially near the borders of their territory.

They also mark areas by defecating in large middens and by pawing the ground to deposit smelly secretions from glands on their feet.

hyena interesting facts

Most pasting near the den is done by males and young, low-ranking females.

Females are clan warriors and tend to take the initiative in these clashes against rival groups.

Groups will patrol territory boundaries and scent-mark systematically.

Encounters between different clans may result in violent battles.

The battles usually involve all members of the two clans, in which the losers are savaged and killed.

What is the dominance hierarchy in a clan?

Unusual among mammals, females are larger than males and dominate them.

Cubs dominate males and once they have been admitted to the clan, immigrant males also outrank resident males.

Dominant animals are usually bigger than subordinates.

what species is a hyenaHyena cubs inherit the rank of the mother.

Cubs inherit the rank of the mother. During the first weeks of a hyena cub’s life, they must learn from their mother how and where their position lies within the hierarchy of the clan.

The cub inherits his or her mother’s status in the clan, by slotting in directly beneath her position. The new cub will also rank above their older siblings.

Hyenas mating

Only the highest-ranking immigrant male mates.

The privileges of being high-ranking females are priority access to food and resting sites near the den entrance.

They also rear more cubs than low rankers.

Can you tell a dominant hyena from a submissive one?

The aggressive animal curls its tail over its back, pricks its ears forward and, keeps its mouth closed.

Here the animal on the right seems to be winning this battle.

A submissive hyena holds its ears low, opens its mouth, and tucks its tail between its legs.

Grinning and laying the ears back display a submissive greeting.

Their most distinctive call is a long rising whoop rising in pitch towards the end.

The calls are very loud and can carry for more than 5 km. These are long-range signals to inform clan members of each other's locations.

Fast whoops are used to attract members to carcasses and to recruit them for confrontations against lions.

How long do these creatures live?

Hyenas live up to 20 years in the wild.

Hyena family structure

These are social creatures, and they live in clans of up toeighty0 animals.

The stable core of a clan consists of a dominant female and successive generations of her daughters and their offspring.

spotted hyena social structure

These Africa animals are very social and live in groups called clans. 

Clans also contain resident males and immigrant males.

The immigrants will only be accepted to membership after weeks of cautious approaches and subordination, during which they endure the most of the clan aggression.

Female cubs inherit their mother’s rank and will fight furiously for this rank. It is common behavior in a pair of twins for one to kill her sister.

The cubs are born in litters of one to four in dens that may be converted aardvark holes or caves.

They are born with eyes wide open, and teeth well developed.

Cubs are suckled until they are old enough to go along on foraging trips at about 14 months.

The cubs live on milk alone for six to nine months.

After this, they begin to visit kills and take solid food.

They are weaned at 10 to 14 months.

hyena fun factsThese African animals certainly wouldn’t get far in a Miss Universe contest and their image as a repulsive animal is an obstacle to their conservation

Since we are looking at unusual hyena facts, we need to clarify the following question that often arises ----------

Do female Hyenas have penises?

The females have assumed some male attributes, which leads to some confusion in differentiating the sexes.

The most puzzling feature is that females as well males, seem to have male genitals.

A female spotted hyena has an erectile pseudo penis and false scrotum filled with fat, which is as large as a male penis.

how do hyenas give birth?

Females average about 10 kilograms more in weight than their male counterparts.

They have elevated levels of male hormones known as androgens, which might explain their dominating aggressiveness and large size.

They display a complex greeting ceremony, which clan members use to reinforce social bonds.

They recognize each other by sight and stand head to tail alongside each other's while carefully inspecting the erect genitals of the partner.

Why do hyenas laugh?

Their most distinctive call is a long, rising whoop, rising in pitch towards the end.

These are long-range signals to inform clan members of each other's locations.

Spotted hyenas are often called “laughing hyenas” because they sound like hysterical human “hee-hee-hee” laughter.

Spotted hyenas are responsible for most of the hyena myths and beliefs and they are the hyena that laughs.

The “laughing” sound they produce is simply an alternative form of communication. This communication is used for building social bonds and synchronizing group activities.

They have quite a rich repertoire of vocal signals.

Cubs whine when they beg for food or milk.

When chased off a kill they giggle.

If surprised or frightened they will give a series of short, quiet grunts.

Grunts and growls signal an imminent attack.

Fast whoops are used to attract members to carcasses and to recruit them for confrontations against lions.

The more we know about hyenas, the better we will understand the key role that they play in the ecosystems in which they live.

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