A truly misunderstood animal, capable of crushing elephant bone one moment and tender mothering the next. This African predator is the most abundant predator in its range. With a brown to tan spotted coat of fur, longer forelimbs to hind, non-retractable claws and large muscular neck and head, the spotted hyena might appear lame but it’s built for killing. The skull has elongated sinuses that create a geometry that provide better resistance with biting as well as teeth thickened with compact bone, below and behind the premolars acting as a shock absorber when biting through tough bone.
The large neck and head, equipped with the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom, is capable of crushing through the toughest of bone. This bodes well, for their digestive system deals extremely well with bacteria, includes highly acidic fluids, but also has an uncommonly long tract capable of extracting nearly all the protein and fat from bones. From gazelle to wildebeest, ostrich egg to warthog and even carrion their varied diet suits them well in desperate times. One oddity resulting from their high calcium diet is their fecal matter is a chalky white in colour. Another is the fact that they cannot fully digest hair, horns and hooves and therefore regurgitate them in the form of pellets.
Strategic hunting is mostly done in small to large packs, and while following migratory ungulates will travel a total of 80km round trip per journey. A hyena’s heart is twice the size of that of a lions, allowing them to maintain speeds of up to 60km/hr. Their method of killing leaves more to be desired, with what scientist saying ‘a faster method of killing than the suffocation by lions’, the hyena surrounds their prey and bites at it’s tender underbelly and released it’s entrails, and continues to almost devour it alive. With its keen senses of sight, hearing and smell all aid in hunting. But putting these senses together it’s quite smart. It detects carrion by smell, the noise of other predators feeding on the carcass and even by observing vultures descending on a carcass. Its hearing is so acute, the hyena can pick up noises coming from predators killing prey or feeding over a distance of up to 10km.
The spotted hyena has one of the most complex social structures of any non-primate species. Hyena clans can contain upwards of 90 individuals that come together at communal den but break off into smaller hunting parties. Clans tirelessly patrol their territories and leave scent markings from pouches located at the sides of the anus as well as scent marking from the pads of their feet. Communal latrines are also used and help with marking of territories. There is also much sniffing and vocalizing between clan individuals to promote dominance and bonding. Females stand head to tail with the rear leg lifted, each sniffing and touching the other’s extended phallus for up to 30 seconds.
These clans consist of a female dominated hierarchy, sexual dimorphism favouring the female and to round it off the female of the species has a pseudo-penis. This pseudo-penis a mark of their aggression and dominance has gotten them tested for hormone levels. Scientists found much higher blood levels of a steroid hormone called androstenedione, typically a male hormone. These remarkable females have had to adapt this pseudo-penis for parturition. A mother usually gives birth to one sometimes two cubs, into an abandoned warthog or aardvark burrow. These small burrows keep the black coloured cub safe from predators. That is unless it has a sibling. Spotted hyena cubs are born with eyes open and fully erupted teeth and are ready for survival of the fittest. Siblicide is common with spotted hyena young.
These amazing mothers also have extremely high protein and fat rich milk, this allows mothers to successfully leave cubs for days at a time while off on migratory hunts. Not only have they adapted their bodies to provide for their young, behaviourally they are devoted, nursing and caring for their young for up to 18 months.
Some would call it disturbing, I find it beautiful and amusing at times, yes I speak of the spotted hyena’s distinct vocalizations. Though it has numerous ones, it’s most heard is the whooping, used for; rallying clan members, defending territory, food, and communal dens, it can be heard over several kilometres. Another is the dreaded ‘laugh’ or ‘giggle’, which is really a signal of submission.
I hope to bring awareness to others, and educate them on the beauty of the spotted hyena. Though these animals are listed now as lower risk: conservation dependent, our support is still needed. The spotted hyena is a keystone species of the African plains, in which it resides and must not be thought of as a ruthless idiotic killer, as Disney once betrayed them. Just like every animal, the hyena contains beauty and intelligence, and there is still much to be learned from this magnificent creature.