When you think of the Spotted Hyena, what immediately jumps to mind? Is it of a majestic animal atop a termite mound taking in the first rays of sunlight? Is it a sleek & elegant predator sprinting after prey in the grasslands of the Masai Mara? Is it a caring mother nurturing her new born cubs or is it an animal filled with mischief and joy interacting with other members of the family?
I would say that few of you considers the above mentioned to be attributes given to the Spotted Hyena. Surely not, right? Movies, novels & the general opinion says otherwise.
Terms that tend to come to mind would be lowly scavenger unable to hunt for itself. Dirty mangy beasts carrying diseases. Lazy. Ugly. Savage.
Does this sound about right? Well, in this post I'll not try and convince you to feel otherwise about them. I merely want to tell you more about this fascinating animal, sharing my experience, personal accounts & a few bits of information from some clever people.
I think the Spotted Hyena has been made most famous by a film we all know & love - The Lion King. This film however has not done the hyenas reputation much good. Many of us have grown up thinking very little of this rather odd-looking, eery animal.
From personal experience and encounters I can however tell you a very different story. It's a story describing a true predator, an animal that's evolved to make the most out of every opportunity it's faced with. An animal that's highly social and incredibly well organised as a clan and family. I'll tell you about an animal that'll fight for it's territory and an animal that takes care of their young like few others will. You'll also learn about an animal that's incredibly strange with mannerisms and characteristics that'll leave you pondering the matter of the subject.
Please remember, this is not a scientific report, just some good information to make your next safari and experience with the Spotted Hyena a more insightful experience.
The Spotted Hyena can be found just about anywhere in Africa south of the Sahara, with the exclusion of rain forests. It's therefore a common sight for most safari destinations and an animal just about every safari-goer has encountered at-least once on their travels.
The hyenas of the Ngorongoro Crater are some of the most studied mammals in Africa and much that we know today in terms of their behaviour would have been learnt studying the crater's dense hyena population. They mostly favour areas that are rich in prey species. Some other areas that are known for good hyena populations would be the Greater Kruger, Masai Mara, Serengeti and Zambia's South Luangwa & Liuwa Plains. The areas are dense in prey selection, offer the type of habitat they prefer and has a climate that suits them best year round.
They are one of Africa's largest predators and likely the top scavenger. Although they live in clans numbering 60 -80 individuals in areas like the Crater, they will often move around solo or in pairs. They stand no chance against lions when on their own but do regularly dominate leopards, even when moving solo. In a large group they are formidable and dangerous. Large groups of hyena only (sometimes) give way to dominant male lions. They tend to steer clear of male lions , even if they greatly outnumber the male lion. But when hyenas team up against the rest of the pride and outnumber the lionesses it's game over - hyenas will dominate.
If you've ever watched Eternal Enemies by the Joubert's, you'll know exactly what I mean
The ability to interact with lions also varies from one region to another, and from clan to clan. Some hyena clans never shy away from a good battle with the resident lions. They will know one another well & are aware of what they can and can't get away with. Some battles between lions & hyenas will end in bloodshed and even death.
Then on the other hand, you get hyena clans that are not fond of encounters with lions and completely shy away from them. It's all dependant on the region & the clans willingness to engage with the resident predators. Some are bold and daring, some completely ignore the lions and leopards and won't engage often.
I've also seen how hyenas get to know the resident leopards within their territory. One particular male leopard in Singita's Sabi Sands PVT Game Reserve would not have any of it. He was incredibly confident and would not be bothered by an inquisitive hyena. I've seen him lying at the base of a tree with a kill/carcass next to him, ignoring an approaching hyena. Hyenas would typically charge in towards the leopard the moment it realises a meal is on offer, and 99% of the times displace the leopard and steal the kill. Not with this male leopard. Whenever hyenas encountered him they would hang around but not engage or charge in. Those that do end up doing so walk away with a bloody nose. When 2 or 3 clan members join the male leopard would realise the odds are changing and he would hoist the carcass in one swift motion, displaying his power & grace and leaving the hyenas down below with nothing but tufts of fur & a little bit of blood.
I have no doubt in my mind that these hyenas knew each leopard within their territory, and knew them well. Some leopards would immediately be chased and the leopard would need to find a tree to escape whilst other leopards walked by and oozed confidence, sending shivers down the spine of any hyena.
Hyenas and their complex social structure
Hyenas are incredibly social. The clans found within the Serengeti and specifically the Ngorongoro Crater constitute the biggest large carnivore social groups in the world. In order to maintain order within such a massive clan you need rules & rulers. In this case not kings, but a queen.
Females dominate every facet of clan life. They rule the roost, no questions asked. They are larger, stronger and more aggressive. They outrank every male within the clan with the exception of 1 - the male cubs/s of the alpha female. The matriarch's offspring are high in rank and second mostly only to mom & a few other high ranking females!
Female hyenas are born with the same levels of testosterone found within the males. It's thought that the nutritional advantage of being dominant led to an increase in aggressiveness & size within female hyenas. This is mediated by male sex hormones, most notably testosterone. Studies have indicated that males & females have on average equal levels of male hormones in circulation. One study found that even a female fetus is on par with an adult female hyena in terms of testosterone production. These high levels of male hormones have also led to female hyenas possessing what looks like male genitalia. It's strange and looks so real that to the untrained eye, it'll be hard to tell the difference between the two.
It's clear that female hyenas are designed to rule the clan, perfectly manufactured for the task.
A clan is led by a single alpha female called the matriarch. She is the highest ranking member of the clan and her offspring right behind her. It's interesting to note that due to the intense competition within a clan for dominance, only 2 cubs are born per female on average. The cubs of the matriarch regardless of gender, will be the highest ranking hyenas in the clan, even from birth. Typically males would be the lowest ranking members, even bullied by young cubs. But the matriarch's cubs are the exception to this rule.
Life can be challenging for males within the clan. It's generally understood that males will not have any reproductive opportunities within his natal clan. None whatsoever. For him to have any opportunity to mate with females, he'll need to leave his birth clan and join another. Here he will have to fend for himself and through trial and tribulation work his way into a position of stature in order to obtain quality mating opportunity. What's absolutely fascinating is the story of any male born to the matriarch.
The son of the queen will eat better, grow faster and achieve a higher rank within the clan. Her cubs get special privileges not afforded to the rest of the clan. This is where it gets even more interesting. Normal clan males tend to disperse and leave the clan at around 25 months of age. The queen's son? He stays on average till about 41 months of age, nearly twice as long! Why is this of advantage? By the time the matriarch's son joins another clan he's much larger and stronger and given his birthright he'll be joining with confidence. It gives him a higher rank upon entry into the new clan & the chances of him becoming a dominant male are much higher.
Life at the Den
Within a clan's territory lies a key focus point - the den. It's where the bulk of the activity can be monitored from. Den's are underground and often find their origins from old abandoned warthog or aardvark burrows. Hyenas will customise them to some extent and even the cubs will dig them deeper for safety purposes. So much of hyena interaction takes place within the immediate vicinity of the den. What's interesting though is to note that this excludes males. The bulk of males rank too low and won't be tolerated around the dens. In fact, even the cubs are allowed to pester and bully the males - tough life I'd say.
Several females will use the den to give birth to their litters, some using "satellite dens" close to the actual main den. It comes as a surprise that hyena mothers do not practise communal care of offspring. They won't allow another females cubs to suckle. Perhaps this stems from the intense competition within the clan for rank and superiority.
Only 2 cubs are born to a female on average. It's thought that this enables the cubs to grow faster in order to compete more effectively - less cubs means more attention from mom. It's also thought that the cubs are born larger than most predators. They weigh 1.5 kilograms at birth and their eyes are open (but partially blind) from day 1. In contrast, lion cubs can only open their eyes from 3 - 11 days and weigh about the same as the average hyena cub. It's clear that hyenas are born more developed and therefore are able to compete within the clan at a much younger age.
I also find mother hyenas to be very attentive to the needs of their cubs. They are extremely patient & enduring. You would never think that of a hyena. I've seen how mothers carry their cubs around, gently holding them in jaws that are rated as some of the most powerful in the animal kingdom!
Cubs will suckle at times for over an hour, often falling asleep at the nipple. They'll suckle their cubs up to the age of a year (very long for any predator) and the weaning process can be a traumatic one. If you've ever spent time at a hyena den you'll have likely heard a few tantrums as moms refuse milk to the hungry yearlings.
As mentioned, the dens are often at the core of the clan's territory and the focus of their attention. They don't spend much more than a month or two at any one densite. The build up of smell and possible parasites means they'll move to a different den, still within the territory itself. It's a good method and again underlines how well organised the clan is.
Now here's one thing most of you already know - Hyenas are LOUD!
It's thought that they have at-least 11 recognisably different calls. I'll describe them in more detail below...
- Whoop - The typical call often heard. It's a long distance communication call and repeated up to 15 times and audible from up to 5 km's away. Usually given with the head low to the ground. The call is low in frequency for the most part and this low frequency travels further along the ground than through the air, hence the low posture when calling.
- Fast Whoop - Faster and higher pitched, usually uttered by hyenas competing with lions or other hyenas at a kill site.
- Low - Drawn out o-o-o sound, uttered by hyenas impatiently waiting at a kill. It expressed rising aggression and impatience.
- Giggle - High pitched cackling laugh very characteristic for the spotted hyena, a call many of us know them by.
- Yell - Loudest of all their calls, usually in self defence when being attacked.
- Growl - Deep, loud intimidating rumble. Usually from an agitated aggressive hyena.
- Rattling Growl - Soft, low pitched staccato grunts in rapid succession, expression of alarm or threat. Louder versions of this can be heard from hyenas interacting with lions at a kill site.
- Grunt - Aggressive reaction by a hyena, for example a female being approached by an unwelcome male.
- Groan - Similar to grunt, but more drawn out. Usually during greeting ceremonies & interactions.
- Whine - Loud, high pitched squeals, made by begging hyenas.
- Soft squeal - accompanies friendly meetings & submissive behaviour.
As you can see, these calls are the ones most obvious to us and serves great function for such a highly social animal. Remember these next time you see a hyena or watch a documentary online, it will be good fun figuring out what the calls and interactions all mean.
Now here's an interesting point of discussion.
I have no doubt that many people out there fully believe that hyenas largely scavenge and are too lazy or incapable of hunting on their own.
This my friends, could not be farther from the truth.
Yes, hyenas will scavenge whenever a possibility presents itself. It makes complete sense, why would you not? The same is true for lions and leopards. All 3 will readily scavenge if a free & easy meal is on offer.
Hyenas will also try as best they can to pick off the easiest meals when hunting. This could be injured animals, young animals or old animals. It makes total sense again. Hyenas have the uncanny ability to spot weakness in prey that would go completely undetected by us. They will exploit this weakness instead of picking off stronger animals, again something that makes complete sense.
Is this lazy? Is it sluggish? The mighty lion and the elegant leopard would do exactly the same.
You have to keep in mind that hyenas lack a powerful weapon present in both lions and leopards - sharp claws. The big cats use these well in order to catch and secure large and healthy prey. The hyena lacks this important tool and therefore has to make do with what it has, and what it has is a special ability missing in the big cats hunting arsenal - stamina.
A hyena will hunt & pursue prey over long distances. Many prey animals make the mistake of allowing a hyena too close before moving off. They are more relaxed in the presence of a hyena than say that of a pride of lions. What many fail to act upon is the fact that lions and leopards will not give chase for a long distance. Hyenas on the other hand will. This is what makes them successful as a hunter. By the time they manage to catch up to a tired and exhausted wildebeest, it's pretty easy to dispatch of the animal. It'll be tired and stressed and rarely will the animal put up a big fight. The kill comes not by a purposeful bite to the muzzle to suffocate, but the animal will more than likely be eaten alive and die from shock and loss of blood or disembowelment. It's a tough way to go but it's quick and efficient.
Make no mistake, hyenas will scavenge whenever a possibility is presented.
If you've visited destinations like South Africa's Sabi Sands or Zambia's South Luangwa, you would have more than likely seen a leopard being closely followed and watched by a hungry hyena or two. Hyenas know very well that at some point the leopard will hunt and make a kill, and the moment that happens the hyena will swoop in to try and claim the kill from the leopard. Leopards typically surrender the kill to the hyena should they fail to hoist it up a tree. No point in fighting & being injured by the larger hyena, they can just hunt again. The hyena on the other hands gets a free meal with little extra effort. Cowardly, or opportunistic and smart?
Even though hyenas are part of a large clan system, they'll likely be out and about foraging alone or in small groups of 2 or 3. It allows them to scan across a much larger area and in so doing more success can be achieved. Should they happen across a large meal opportunity - say lions on a buffalo carcass - their whoops will carry far into the night and garner the support of more clan members, the intention being to overthrow the lions and claim the carcass.
My Wild Eye guests and I watched in total awe as a small group of 3 hyenas displaced a pride (only lionesses) of 7 from their buffalo carcass in South Luangwa. The lions only just started feeding on a buffalo that got stuck in muddy waters. Soon afterwards 3 hyenas stormed on to the scene and within seconds were on to the lions with so much aggression and vigour, that it left the lions no choice but to retreat. The hyenas were extremely loud and vocal and had no fear in tackling the lionesses head on. Perhaps the lions were out of their comfort zone in the deeper water where the buffalo carcass was. The obvious choice was to give in to the pressing hyenas and give way.
By the following morning the carcass was almost finished. More clan members arrived and they made quick work of it all.
They also regularly interact with African wild dogs. For the most part, the wild dogs will come out on top. They have a very well defined attack & offense system and work together well as a unit. Hyenas don't. If a few hyenas attempt to take over a kill from wild dogs, the dogs are so swift to react that the scattering hyenas present no threat and team work. Easy work for the dogs. It's often rather amusing to watch as hungry hyenas are chased time and again by the savvy wild dogs.
Hyenas will however readily steal kills from cheetahs. Cheetahs simply don't want to risk injury. A serious confrontation and clash with a hyena would most certainly render the cheetah injured and incapable of hunting effectively. It's far easier for the cheetah to surrender the kill and hunt again.
Hyenas are more than capable of killing large prey up to the size of adult buffalo, young hyena and even hippo. This is especially true when they are in large numbers.
No matter which way you look at it - ever opportunist and top class hunter - the hyena's skills can not be denied.
I despise when people ridicule hyenas and immediately write them off as mangy scavengers. They are much the opposite. They are highly social and love playing and interacting. There are strong bonds between individuals and the rank and structure within a clan is complex and fascinating! Any time spent observing hyenas with an open mind will reveal to you a side to them you never knew existed.
Yes, they are different to the majestic lion, but we can't compare them to any other animal. They are unique in many ways and therefore deserve to be treated and viewed as such.
Please take more time on safari to look for them. When you find them, look a little closer, pay more attention. You'll soon find that there's so much more to hyenas than immediately meets the eye and they may soon move up your list as some of your favorite animals in Africa.
Much of my information throughout the years on animal behaviour stems from a couple of books written by behavioural biologist Richard Estes. His work is unmatched and it's well worth looking through his books, specifically "The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals". To buy this book simply CLICK HERE.
Thank you so much for reading along, I trust you learnt a little more about this incredible animal, the Spotted Hyena.
Please leave a comment below and share this with a few friends who'd enjoy the read.
Till next time,