Spotted hyena facts: Spotted hyenas range in color from sandy to brown, with black or dark brown spots. The short, bushy tail is black. The sloping back, caused by front legs that are longer than the hind legs, allows for long-distance pursuit of prey. The massive jaws can crush bones, teeth, hooves, and horns. The neck and back are covered with a short mane of hair that can be raised to make the hyena seem larger.
Females are larger than males. In southern Africa, females weigh up to 190 pounds (85 kilograms) and males up to 135 pounds (60 kilograms). Eastern African hyenas are lighter, with females weighing about 125 pounds (55 kilograms) and males about 110 pounds (49 kilograms). The female’s genital organ resembles that of the male because of overproduction of testosterone, the male hormone responsible for the development of the penis. The female mates and gives birth through her pseudopenis (SUE-doh-pee-nis).
Geographic range: Spotted hyenas are found in Africa in countries such as Chad, Sudan, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Spotted hyena habitat: Spotted hyenas prefer grasslands inhabited by their herbivorous (plant-eating) prey, such as antelopes and wildebeests. They also occupy woodlands and semi-deserts.
What does spotted hyena eat: Spotted hyenas mostly hunt rather than scavenge food. They prey on animals several times their size, including gazelles, antelopes, wildebeests, and zebras. They also eat the young of giraffes, hippotamuses, and rhinoceroses, as well as reptiles, domestic livestock, and human garbage. They tear pieces of flesh from prey, killing it in a few minutes. They eat very fast, consuming flesh, skin, teeth, bones, horns, and even hooves. A hyena can eat 33 pounds (15 kilograms) of meat per feeding, throwing up indigestible food as pellets.
Behavior and reproduction: Hyenas live in clans of as many as eighty members, ruled by a dominant female. Daughters inherit their mothers’ status. Males are submissive to all females and to the dominant female’s offspring. Young males are expelled from their homes between ages two to four. They join other clans, starting at the lowest rank. Sons of dominant females may be allowed to stay longer and are more likely to become dominant males in the clan they join. Female members occupy the same territory, defending it against intruders, sometimes to the death.
Spotted hyenas are either nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn). They hunt alone, although they will join forces to catch large prey. They chase down their prey, running 25 to 31 miles (40 to 50 kilometers) per hour and covering a distance of up to 3 miles (5 kilometers). They target young, old, and sick animals.
The spotted hyena is also called the “laughing hyena” because of its high, cackling laugh. It laughs when it is being chased or attacked or to show submission. Hyenas whoop to call clan members to defend territory or to hunt. Greetings involve sniffing each other’s genital areas. They scent-mark territories with anal secretions and feces.
Adults get together only to mate, which may be at any time of the year. A long pregnancy (up to four months) results in well-developed cubs, usually one or two, born with teeth and able to walk. Cubs are kept in a small den inaccessible to adults and predators. When female cubs come out to nurse, they compete for their mother’s milk, sometimes resulting in the death of the sibling who cannot nurse. Within the den, cubs may kill littermates during fights for dominance. After two to four weeks, the mother takes her young to a communal den, where cubs of all ages are raised together. Mothers do not nurse each other’s young. Cubs learn to recognize clan members and establish social rankings. They are weaned from their mothers’ milk at about fourteen to eighteen months. Males do not share in parenting.
Spotted hyenas and people: Some African cultures believe hyenas possess magical powers. Humans kill hyenas for preying on domestic livestock.
Conservation status: The IUCN lists the spotted hyena as Lower Risk/Conservation Dependent (could become threatened) due to killing by humans and habitat loss or degradation as a result of land clearing for agriculture and livestock.