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 underground tunnels.
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 little water.
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 adult.
Lions (who will attack them at every opportunity), hunting dogs and strange hyenas are among the species that prey on hyenas.
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 and pans.
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