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Hyena Facts | Southern Africa Wildlife Guide

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

In Africa, there are multiple species of hyena, all with well-developed senses.

Spotted Hyena

  • Strong forelegs and shoulders, a long neck and a stocky skull holding menacing teeth.
  • Round ears and a spotted coat, as their name suggests.
  • Young hyenas have darker spots than adults, whose spots virtually disappear as they get older.

Striped Hyena

Found in the eastern part of the continent.

  • Shares the same powerful head and shoulders, but has larger forefeet than hind feet and longer legs.
  • Has a ridge of hair running down its back, finishing in an exceedingly bushy tail.
  • Striped hyenas are a more “scraggy” bunch than their short-haired cousins. Their bodies are lighter colored, with the outer surface of their legs lightly striped.

HABITAT

Spotted hyenas are more widespread than striped hyenas. They are found in dry acacia bushland, open plains and rocky country where there is abundant wildlife. They are not common to heavily wooded country or forests, and can live at high altitudes up to 13,200 feet. In Africa, the striped hyena is out-competed by the spotted hyena in open areas, and is thus relegated to other habitats. Striped hyenas are found in dry, mountainous areas with scrub woodlands, making their dens in crags and ravines. In some regions, they live in open savannahs with dense grassland. They have even been found in desert areas where water is not available for many miles.

BEHAVIOR

The spotted hyena is a very vocal species; the characteristic “whoop whoop” howl can be heard throughout the African night. When fighting, they issue a hoarse “ahh ahh” sound. When excited, the hyena’s uneven, pitched howl is eerily reminiscent of the laughter of a demented soul. Vocal communication is not highly developed within the striped hyena species. It consists mainly of soft growls used during encounters. The striped hyena is generally considered a solitary creature and is rarely seen in groups; however, it does have some social organization. It typically forages individually, but can occasionally be observed congregating at a kill. This species may also associate with a small family during the breeding season and at the den. Both parents will help to rear the young, and a family unit may be formed once young are mobile. Adolescent family members will assist with feeding their younger siblings by carrying food back to the den.

Striped hyenas are not highly territorial, as they frequently move from den to den. However, anal gland marks and latrines have been uncovered close to eating sites and well-worn pathways, signs which usually imply the boundary of a territory.

Spotted hyenas are usually seen alone or in pairs in areas of concentrated prey. They may form temporary or permanent groups to share, patrol and defend a hunting territory against other clans. Spotted hyenas are not individually territorial; they make and break bonds with other hyenas very easily. Once a group has been formed, however, they may exhibit territorial behavior.

A hyena showcases its submissiveness in a social meeting by presenting its anal gland. The hyenas begin by sniffing noses and then proceed to sniff genitals. Youth demonstrate submission to adults, and adults display submission to one another in turn. Hyenas fight in a series of ritualized wrestling competitions, as each hyena struggles to grab hold of the other’s cheek. Whoever is defeated in a match shows submission by presentation of the anal gland.

FEEDING HABITS

Both spotted and striped hyenas are scavengers, feeding on the carrion of almost any type of animal, as well as human garbage. They are also adept hunters, generally preying upon sick, weakened animals which make an easier kill. Their immensely strong jaws can crush and chew up bone, which can be digested with the aid of extremely acidic stomach secretions. Hyena droppings are white and crusty, mainly due to the high concentration of powdered bone.

Spotted hyenas show a primitive form of cooperative hunting which is generally more successful and better able to resist the consequences of a counter-attack by another wild beast. They race down their prey, similar to wolves, instead of stalking it or preparing ambushes like lions. Yet, like the majority of carnivores, they are adaptable and can change their hunting approaches to prey-specific situations.

Striped hyenas are more omnivorous than spotted hyenas, and often consume insects, birds, reptiles and fruit as staples of their diet. However, they also scavenge larger mammals, including wildebeests, zebras, impalas and gazelle. The striped hyena hunts primarily at night, journeying solo around its territory in search of food.

The striped hyena will hastily answer to the scent of carcasses in the wind. It also frequently visits fruit trees, garbage dumps and the big kill sites for scavenging food. Striped hyenas will drink water each night if it is accessible, but they can survive without water for long stretches in arid areas. The striped hyena will behave submissively towards the larger spotted hyena, and will allow it to steal its food.

PREDATORS

Hyenas are not a favored prey species by any predator; however, they can and have been threatened by both lions and humans. They generally try to stay a safe distance away—typically about 150 feet—from bigger carnivores such as lions. When in groups, however, they are able, to chase off cheetahs and leopards from food sources.

BREEDING

When in season, female spotted hyenas attract a number of males, one of which will eventually mate with her. Young are born in dens shared by several females. After a gestation period of three to four months, one to three (usually two) cubs are born. Food is not carried to the den, so the young hyenas depend entirely on their mother’s milk for approximately eight months, and are only weaned at 12 to 16 months, when they can feed by themselves.

A striped hyena female forms a temporary bond with the male with which it has most recently mated. Gestation is three months, and as many as six (normally two to four) cubs are born in a den. Both parents will bring food to the cubs.

Photo Credit: Ona Basimane
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