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About Hyena

Do hyenas count as dogs? No dogs here! Hyenas are not members of the dog or cat families. Instead, they are so unique that they have a family all their own, Hyaenidae.  Hyaenidae it is the fifth-smallest biological family in the Carnivora and one of the smallest in the class Mammalia. Despite their low diversity, hyenas are unique and vital components of most African ecosystems.

There are four members of the Hyaenidae family: the striped hyena, the spotted hyena, the brown hyena, and the aardwolf (it’s a hyena, not a wolf).

The Spotted hyena, also called the laughing hyena and is a strong, capable hunter and is the largest member of the hyena. The female spotted hyenas are a bit larger than the males, but otherwise they look the same.

Its large head, long, thick, muscular neck, powerful jaws and front legs that are longer than its back legs, gives the hyena a profile somewhat like that of a wildebeest.    The spotted hyena ears are more rounded that that of the other hyenas.

A hyena’s “laughter” is a form of communication used to convey frustration, excitement, or fear. Most often, you’ll hear this unique vocalization during a hunt or when the animals are feeding on prey as a group.

Hyena packs are matrilineal, which means that females are dominant and lead the pack.

A baby hyena is called a cub and is born in an underground den dug by the mother. Born in litters of only 2 or 3 cubs, the baby hyenas are so aggressive that they may force a weaker sibling to starve by pushing it away from the mother. They need this toughness to survive in the pack and thrive on the African savanna.  Cubs begin to eat meat from kills near the den at about five months, but they are suckled for as long as 12 to 18 months which is an unusually long time for carnivores. Most kills are made far from the den, and hyenas, unlike jackals and hunting dogs, do not bring back food and regurgitate it for their young.

At about one year, cubs begin to follow their mothers on their hunting and scavenging forays. Until then, they are left behind at the den with a babysitting adult.

Spotted hyenas are organized into territorial clans of related individuals that defend their home ranges against intruding clans. The centre of clan activity is the den, where the cubs are raised and individuals meet. The den is usually situated on high ground in the central part of the territory. Its above-ground entrances are connected to a series of underground tunnels.
Hyena’s mark and patrol their territories by depositing a strong-smelling substance produced by the anal glands on stalks of grass along the boundaries. “Latrines,” places where members of a clan deposit their droppings, also mark territories. The high mineral content of the bone’s hyenas consume make their droppings a highly visible, chalky white. Hyenas are social animals that communicate with one other through specific calls, postures, and signals. They quickly make their various intentions known to other members of the clan, or to outsiders. When a hyena’s tail is carried straight, for example, it signals attack. When it is held up and forward over the back, the hyena is extremely excited. In contrast, it hangs down when the hyena is standing or walking leisurely. If frightened, the hyena tucks its tail between the legs and flat against the belly and usually skulks away.

These carnivores are one of Africa’s top predators; however, there is a common misconception that they are primarily scavengers. On the contrary, about 70 percent of their diet is composed of direct kills. They consume animals of various types and sizes, carrion, bones, vegetable matter, and other animal droppings. Their jaws are among the strongest in relation to the size of any other mammal. Their jaws and digestive tract allow them to process and obtain nutrients from skin and bones. The only parts of prey not fully digested are hair, horns, and hooves — these are regurgitated in the form of pellets. The high mineral content of the bones makes their droppings a highly visible, chalky white. According to campers, these animals have even been known to consume aluminium pots and pans.  As hyenas hunt mostly at night and devour all parts, little evidence remains of their actual meals. Although they eat a lot of dry bones, they need little water.

Lions and hyenas compete over the same food in overlapping territories. Sometimes the hyenas do the work of organizing, chasing down, and killing prey only to have lions steal it. Lions often injure or kill hyenas as they fight over a carcass. Both hyenas and lions, mark and establish territories, and both species are always on guard. When confronted by a lion, the spotted hyena calls for help from other hyenas.

In a large group, spotted hyenas are able to chase lions away from a kill. But during a hunt, the hyena’s impressive hunting skills come into play. They are able to chase down prey over long distances while running at up to 37 miles per hour (60 kilometres per hour).

Spotted hyenas often pick out the young or weak from the herd, but they can kill even healthy adult ungulates. What they hunt depends on numbers. The bigger the hyena clan, the larger its prey. This can include young rhinos, adult wildebeest, zebras, and Cape buffalo. The hyenas work in a group when hunting such large prey, and young hyenas take years to become successful. Smaller packs chase down gazelles, impalas, warthogs, and waterbucks.

When hunting alone, a spotted hyena may go after smaller prey. Ground birds, rabbits, springhare, bat-eared foxes, porcupines, jackals, and fish can be on the menu.

The hyena track has two lobes on the main pad and the toes fit very closely together. This is different from another large mammal such as a lion which has three lobes at the pack of the main pad and the toes are visibly separate. The claws are quite apparent as hyena, unlike lions who have retractable claws. The footprints of a hyena usually measure about 11cm, and the front feet are usually bigger than the back feet in order to support their stronger and heavier forequarters.

The way hyenas are depicted and misrepresented as foolish and treacherous and is a reputation that these intelligent, resourceful, and efficient creatures do not deserve.


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