crocuta (spotted hyena)
||28 to 35 inches tall
||90 to 190 pounds
||25 years in captivity
||Savannas, grasslands, woodlands,
forest edges, subdeserts and
mountains to 13,000 feet
||90 to 110 days
The hyena is Africa's most common large carnivore. Over
the years hyenas and humans have come into close contact in
Africa and, in earlier times, in Asia and in Europe, often
leading to mutual predation. In ancient Egypt hyenas were
domesticated, fattened and eaten, and in turn humans have on
occasion become food for hyenas. Reputed to be cowardly and
timid, the hyena can be bold and dangerous, attacking animals
Of the three species of hyena in Africa, only the spotted
hyena and the shy and much rarer, striped hyena (Hyaena
hyaena) are found in East Africa. The smaller, and even
shyer brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) occurs only in
southern Africa. Different from most other animals, female
spotted hyenas are dominant over the males and outweigh them
by about 3 pounds.
It is difficult to distinguish male and female hyenas by
observation in the field. They are not hermaphrodites (having
both male and female sexual organs), nor can they change their
sex at will, as many people believe. Although the external
female genitalia have a superficial similarity to those of the
male, they are nonetheless female organs and only the females
bear and nurse young. Why the female hyena developed in this
manner is not known, but it may have been necessary for them
to appear large and strong to protect their young from males,
as hyenas have cannibalistic tendencies.
Spotted hyenas are found in grasslands, woodlands, savannas,
subdeserts, forest edges and mountains.
Spotted hyenas are organized into territorial clans of
related individuals that defend their home ranges against
intruding clans. The center 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
Hyenas 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 bones 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.
The spotted hyena is a skillful hunter but also a scavenger.
Truly an opportunistic feeder, it selects the easiest and most
attractive food it may ignore fresh carrion and bones if there
is, for example, an abundance of vulnerable wildebeest calves.
It consumes animals of various types and sizes (including
domestic stock and even other hyenas), carrion, bones,
vegetable matter and other animals' droppings. The powerful
jaws and digestive tract of the hyena allow it 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. 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
Caring for the Young
Hyenas usually bear litters of two to four cubs, which, unlike
the other two species, are born with their eyes open. Cubs
begin to eat meat from kills near the den at about 5 months,
but they are suckled for as long as 12 to 18 months, an
unusually long time for carnivores. This is probably a
necessity, as 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 1 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
Lions (who will attack them at every opportunity), hunting
dogs and strange hyenas are among the species that prey on
Did you know?
- Hyenas make a variety of vocalizations, including
wailing calls, howling screams and the well-known "laughter"
used to alert other clan members up to three miles away of
a food source.
- Hyenas eat a great variety of animal products,
vegetation and, according to campers, even aluminum pots