Hyenas, like sharks, have been vilified in movies, TV, magazines, and books. In actuality they are highly intelligent skilled hunters living in a complicated matriarchal society. No doubt their sloping posture caused by having longer legs in front than in back have contributed to the false reputation. Though they have a resemblance to the canid family (wolves, jackals, dogs, etc.) their closer relatives are actually meerkats and mongooses. The hyena type animal has been in the fossil record for some 30 million years. They’re found in Africa, Arabia, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.
The hyena comes in four flavors, spotted, stripped, brown, and the aardwolf. All but the stripped hyena is found only in sub-Saharan Africa. The spotted is the best known and typically the one people think about when they hear the name hyena. With the exception of the aardwolf that eats termites, they have enormously powerful jaws that can crush bone and hooves. With a bite like this they can consume every part of their prey and usually do. They can also maintain speeds of up to 30mph for a considerable distance. While a clan animal, most hyena hunts are handled by only one or two individuals. Once prey is brought down the rest of the pack comes in and feeds similar to wolf families. Of course, being scavengers too most any carrion will get their interest. Who gets to eat first totally depends on their status within the clan.
Their digestive tract is highly specialized. Because they’ve developed such a robust system they can eat just about anything. Powerful enzymes along with particularly strong stomach acids make short work of even teeth and horns. Due to the general strength of their digestive system, bacteria are less of an issue so even long dead carrion can be consumed. This no doubt has contributed to their reputation; for they not only have the strength to dig up graves they can also handle digesting the “carcass” within. However, this is not a common behavior and most likely is a last resort kind of activity.
Hyenas have a most unique social structure among mammalian carnivores. An alpha female runs the clan. A pack can have as many as 80 members and many researchers believe they have a social status compared to baboons and other “old world monkeys.” The spotted hyena females are usually larger than males. They also are polygynous, meaning females may acquire several mates sharing multiple dens. Another oddity is that the female genitalia looks very much like a male’s, especially before puberty. They have an enlarged clitoris that is almost the same size and shape as the male penis (called a pseudo-penis). They also have lumps approximately the size and shape of testicles (pseudo-testicles). Mating and birthing is accomplished through the clitoris which folds up inside during intercourse. Brown, stripped, and the aardwolf do not have this adaptation. Alpha females have been found with as much as six times the testosterone as the next female and significantly more than any of the males. Gestation takes 4 months and the pups are typically raised in communal dens with up to ten females whether they have cubs or not. The adolescents are ready to join the hunt at about one and a half years old. The males do not play a role in child care and usually leave their birth clan when they come of age to search out other groups. This helps keep in-breeding to a minimum.
Hyenas do not use urine to mark their territory. Specialized anal glands emit an oily discharge that is deposited onto objects defining clan areas. They also scratch the ground leaving scent from glands in their feet. They greet each other much like canids by sniffing each other’s genital and anal parts. A variety of grunts, whoops and other vocalizations are also used for communication. The laughter-like calls of the spotted hyena have found their way into many indigenous human cultures. It was thought they could imitate voices and trick people into becoming prey. The real reason they “laugh” is a little more practical (see sidebar Why Do Hyena’s Laugh). Hyenas are an evolutionary success and very adaptable. Nevertheless, with their continuing shrinking habitat their adaptive capabilities will be tested to the extreme.