One of our favourite species to spot when on safari, hyenas have garnered a bad reputation as inferior scavengers of the savannah.
Despite this, they are highly intelligent and complex animals who have survived on Earth for 24 million years. We have created a list of interesting hyena facts about one of the most misunderstood animals in Africa.
Hyenas live in a wide range of habitats
Hyenas are large, nocturnal carnivores. They live in a wide range of habitats, from the savannah to grasslands, forests, riverine bush, desert and mountains, and are found in both Africa and sometimes in Asia.
Hyenas aren’t dogs, they have their own biological species
Even though hyenas appear to resemble dogs, but actually, have no formal relation to the dog species. In fact, they are more genetically related to meerkats and mongooses!
Hyenas are so unique that they have a different biological species of their own called Hyaenidae.
There are four distinct hyena species in the Hyaenidae family
There are four distinct species of the Hyaenidae family: the Striped hyena, the ‘giggly’ Spotted hyena, the Brown hyena, and the Aardwolf.
- Spotted Hyena – This is the largest of all the hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) with 1.2 to 1.8 meters in body length, and weighing between 40 and 86 kilograms. Spotted Hyenas are social animals and live in groups called clans, which can have up to 80 members.
- Brown Hyenas – (Hyaena brunnea) is the second largest hyena, ranging from 130 to 160 centimetres and weighing 34 to 72.6 kilograms. They generally forage alone and are mostly solitary in their habitats. These hyenas will sometimes form clans of up to 10 members.
- The Striped Hyena – (Hyaena hyaena) is 100 to 115 centimetres long and 66 to 75. Their tails are 30 to 40, and they weigh from 26 to 41 kilograms. Once believed to be solitary, striped hyenas actually live in small groups. Striped hyenas are primarily scavengers.
- Aardwolves – (Proteles cristata) are the smallest of the four with length ranges from 85 to 105 centimetres and weighing from 8 to 14 kg. The aardwolf was thought to be a solitary animal, but studies have shown that they live as monogamous pairs with their young. Aardwolves are insectivores and mainly eat termites.
Hyenas live in matriarchal societies
Female hyenas produce three times more testosterone in their bodies than their male counterparts. As a result, the females are more muscular, larger and more aggressive than the males. Just like elephant herds, hyena societies are matriarchal. Even the girl hyena cubs rule over the boys.
Males have the lowest rank in the clan and are forced to leave their family when they reach sexual maturity. Males then have to fight to enter a new pack which is often deadly, and the alpha female will determine their fate.
Want to learn more about these cunning, misunderstood dog-like legend of the African bush? Read these fascinating books on hyenas:
- The Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behavior
- Hyenas: The Laughing Predators (children’s book, loads of great pictures)
Hyenas are extremely intelligent animals
Despite being depicted as dumb and crude, Hyenas are one of the most intelligent and socially sophisticated mammals in the world.
Hyenas have a large frontal cortex of the brain and studies have shown that hyenas perform better problem-solving abilities and social cooperation than chimpanzees. A study by Duke University found that hyenas achieved social cooperation, in silence, without any verbal communication.
Hyenas use complex sounds to communicate
Hyenas use several different sounds, postures and signals to communicate with clan members who are up to 5 km away. These various sounds help them to coordinate their movements while they’re hunting or to keep track of their other members.
These numerous vocalizations include wailing, howling, and the most infamous – laughter. Hyenas use “laughing” as a form of communication to express excitement or frustration. Each hyena has a unique laugh that can indicate their age and status in the pack.
They are cunning hunters
Although Hyenas have been portrayed as good-for-nothing scavengers, they are in fact aggressive competitors in the bush. Not only do they scavenge on the kills of other animals, spotted hyenas hunt and eat 95% of their own kills which takes place in large clans.
A group of hyenas can consume an entire zebra – bones and all – in under half an hour. But this feeding frenzy comes at a price; a group of hyenas will fight with one another over the remains of their meal, often leading to death or severe injury.
Hyena cubs fight for survival
Female hyenas have only two nipples; therefore, cubs are forced to fight for food from the others, often leading to death.
In litters larger than 2, the weaker cubs are pushed aside and often die of starvation. 60% of hyena cubs die before reaching adulthood.
Hyenas are competitive
Hyenas and lions are enemies of the bush and often fight over the same territories and hunt the same prey. This leads to competition between the two species. They steal each other’s food and kill the pups of their enemies.
Hyenas vs wild dogs
Hyenas are commonly mistaken for African wild dogs, but in fact, they aren’t even the same species.
There are many differences between hyenas and wild dogs, both physically and behaviorally. Hyenas are more competitive over food sources and will turn against members from their clan. Wild dogs care about the well-being of the pack rather than the individual. As a result, they share food sources and care for the ill or injured members in their pack.
Despite what Simba would say, we love these creatures of the dark. Hyenas are vital contributors to the complex web of life and play a significant role in the African ecosystem.
Watch The Bone Crusher, a fascinating documentary about the spotted hyenas in Zambia!
If you enjoy reading these interesting facts about hyenas, check out our list of interesting facts about our other favourite animals.
First published, July 2019, updated November 2020