I’ve blogged about a species of hyena before, the Aardwolf, but there’s another member of the Hyaenidae that’s super cool. Actually, there’s only four species of hyena, the aardwolf, the brown hyena, the striped hyena and the spotted hyena. One other fun fact about hyenas before I move on to the star of today’s show: hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than dogs, despite their canine-like appearance.
Anyway, the spotted hyena is one of the strangest members of the hyena family, and probably of the Carnivora order. Today spotted hyenas live in sub-Saharan Africa, though they used to range across much of Europe. Spotted hyenas live in open, arid areas, including savannah, semi-desert, and sometimes in forests.
The spotted hyena is the largest species of hyena, standing at 75-85 cm at the shoulder and weighing from 45 to 70 kg. Unusually for mammals, the females of this species are bigger than the males, usually weighing about 6 kg more than males. Typical of hyenas, the spotted hyena has longer front legs than back legs, creating a downward sloping back. They have a super large neck and strong head, which gives the hyena a ridiculously strong bite.
Contrary to popular belief, the spotted hyena is a predator, not a scavenger. They hunt many different types of prey, including zebra, wildebeest and Thompson’s gazelle. Each type of prey requires a different hunting style, and the hyena adapt to this, hunting wildebeest in small groups, zebra in packs, and gazelle alone. They are very environmentally friendly, using almost all parts of their prey – they can splinter bones and digest all organic compounds in them. Basically all that’s left of prey after hyena consumption is excreted in the hyena’s faeces – some white powder and a few hairs. The only part of their prey they don’t eat is the horns and rumen, but the rest is fair game for a hyena. Hyenas also eat a lot, and they eat quickly. They compete with each other for food simply by eating faster, not with aggression. Thus a group of 35 hyenas can eat an adult zebra in just over half an hour.
One of the most famous things about spotted hyenas is their females, which are pretty much males. They have a pseudo-penis, and a pair of sacs that are filled with fibrous tissue that basically look like a scrotum. They are the only mammals that do not have an external vagina, and must urinate, mate, and give birth through the pseudo-penis. One theory of why female spotted hyenas have this strange genital arrangement is sexual mimicry — that females that look like males are less likely to be attacked by other females.
As you might imagine, this pseudo-penis (actually the female’s clitoris) makes normal reproductive life quite difficult. To mate, males have to slide their hind end under the female to achieve intromission, before they can switch to a more normal mating posture. As well, birth is quite unpleasant, as the clitoris ruptures to allow the pups to pass through. The resulting wounds take several weeks to heal. Not fun at all.
Spotted hyenas live in groups called clans, where there is a female hierarchy that is inherited from the mother. Mothers usually give birth to 2 pups, though 1-4 pups have been recorded. Pups are born with eyes open, and usually attack each other shortly after birth, often resulting in the deaths of one of the pups. Hyenas invest a fair amount of time and energy into their offspring; the spotted hyena has the highest milk protein content of any terrestrial carnivore, and they nurse their young for over a year. The social structure of spotted hyenas is said to be similar to that of many primates, and indeed hyenas have outperformed chimpanzees in certain intelligence tasks, especially those involving social cooperation.
Thankfully, these cool predators are the most abundant large predator in Africa and are not currently under serious threat. Despite their poor reputation, they are really neat animals, and should be appreciated as such. So start appreciating!