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    5 things you didn’t know about hyenas

    10 minutes read
    10 minutes read
    safari wildlife factshyena africa tanzania-4

    Hyenas have a dog-like appearance. But they are more closely related to cats. These are among the wild animals you can witness during your safari trip to Tanzania.

    There might not be another African creature more misunderstood than the hyena. Oh, hyenas! You say. But they’re evil, deceptive, and cannibalistic! You say. That scrappy dog, that awful, devilish laughter, and that wicked, razor-toothed grin—what purpose do they serve?

    In an attempt to end such an unfair stigma once and for all, here is your essential briefing on the hyena, possibly the most misunderstood animal you will see on safari.

    Introducing hyena: The misunderstood, matriarchal hunter genius

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    To start, here are some essential things to orient you with the hyena:

    – Species Name: Spotted Hyena (Crotus crotus) is the most common species of hyena in Tanzania. There are four extant hyena species (spotted, striped, brown, aardwolf)

    – Average lifespan: 25 years

    – Size: 2.5ft-3ft at the shoulder, 90-190 lbs. It can grow 4-6 feet long.

    – Estimated Population: Worldwide: 10,000+; Tanzania: 7,000 Serengeti; 400-500 in Ngorongoro; 3,000-4,000 elsewhere.

    5 mind-blowing facts about hyenas to impress your safari group

    Tanzania - safari wildlife facts hyena africa tanzania 1 - 5 things you didn’t know about hyenas

    - Ruled by women​

    Whenever you encounter a hyena in the Serengeti, the first thing to note is the dominance of female authority within their society. Female hyenas hold sway, being more muscular, aggressive, and typically ten times heavier on average than males, boasting triple the testosterone levels. Notably, both male and female hyenas have external reproductive organs, which bear a striking resemblance.

    - As socially complex as primates

    Cartoons have depicted the spotted hyena as dumb and crude, but this is a mere projection. Hyenas are among the most intelligent and socially complex mammals in the world. They have a developed frontal cortex comparable to that of primates.

    Living in clans of 80-120, hyenas are subject to one of the longest-running studies of any wild animal. They concluded that they are socially just as complex as primates and can solve equally challenging cognitive puzzles. (Source)

    - More cat than dog

    Before visiting the Serengeti, I assumed hyenas were canines, like wild dogs or jackals. This is false. Hyenas are more closely related to cats

    As Africa’s most common carnivore, hyenas are part of a sub-group Feliformia. This includes the striped and spotted hyenas, known for their distinct appearances and behaviors. (Source)

    - Hyenas don't laugh, they sing

    Far from a monosyllabic chuckle, spotted hyenas hold a symphony inside their jowls, more than a dozen vocalizations to communicate about social status, territory, and age. They will often release a giggle-like sound after being attacked by another hyena trying to steal their kill. Here’s an excellent short video explaining the hyena’s sophisticated communication system:

    Skilled hunters, not scrappy scavengers

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    Hyenas aren’t the janitors of the Serengeti; those who clean up scraps from lion kills. Sure, they are opportunistic, but hyenas are first and foremost cunning hunters, killing roughly 95% of their food.

    Using bone-crushing jawbones (The top 10 strongest bites on the planet), hyenas work in groups to take down large mammals: buffalo, wildebeest, and zebra. It’s said that, in less than half an hour, a pack of hyenas can attack and eat an entire zebra, bones in all! (Source)

    Hyena Behavior and Social Structure

    Hyenas display intricate social structures within their clans, often led by dominant female members. Communication is key, with hyenas utilizing vocalizations, body language, and scent marking to maintain social bonds and establish hierarchies.

    Female spotted hyenas hold significant sway within these matriarchal societies, influencing hunting strategies and territorial disputes. Despite their scavenger reputation, hyenas are skilled hunters, employing coordinated group efforts to take down large prey. This blend of scavenging and hunting behaviors highlights the adaptability and resourcefulness of hyenas in their environments.

    Hyena Diet and Hunting Behavior

    Hyenas exhibit opportunistic feeding behaviors, encompassing scavenging as well as hunting. Despite commonly being depicted as scavengers, hyenas demonstrate adept hunting abilities, successfully targeting prey larger than themselves through teamwork and coordinated strategies.

    Their hunting behavior is strategic, involving cooperation within their social groups to increase hunting success. Additionally, hyenas are known to steal kills from other predators and scavenge carrion when necessary, showcasing their adaptability and ability to thrive in various ecological niches.

    Hyena Reproduction and Life Cycle

    Hyenas reproduce through viviparous birth, with females giving birth to one to four cubs after a gestation period of around 90 to 110 days. The cubs are born with open eyes and a complete set of teeth, enabling them to compete for food within the clan immediately.

    Female hyenas dominate their social structure, and their offspring inherit this hierarchy. Cubs are cared for by the entire clan, not just their biological mothers and they are weaned at around eight to ten months old.

    Hyenas reach sexual maturity at about two to three years, and their lifespan in the wild typically ranges from 12 to 15 years.

    Hyena Species and Distribution

    Hyenas are fascinating creatures belonging to three main species: spotted, striped, and brown hyenas. Spotted hyenas, or laughing hyenas, are the largest and most well-known of the three species.

    They are primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in savannas and grasslands. Striped hyenas, characterized by their distinctive black stripes, have a more extensive distribution, inhabiting various regions across North and East Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

    Brown hyenas, with their shaggy brown fur, are native to southern Africa, predominantly occupying arid and semi-arid habitats. Despite their differences in appearance and distribution, all hyena species play essential roles in their respective ecosystems as scavengers, hunters, and critical components of the food chain.

    Hyena Conservation and Threats

    Hyenas face various threats in the wild, primarily due to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching. Habitat destruction and fragmentation, driven by human activities such as agriculture, urbanization, and infrastructure development, have significantly reduced suitable habitats for hyenas.

    As a result, hyenas often come into conflict with humans over resources, leading to retaliatory killings and persecution. Additionally, poachers sometimes target hyenas for their body parts, which are used in traditional medicine or cultural practices. 

    Conservation efforts aimed at protecting hyenas and their habitats involve:

    – Establishing protected areas

    – Implementing community-based conservation initiatives

    – Raising awareness about the significance of these animals in ecosystems

    By addressing these threats and implementing conservation measures, we can ensure the survival of hyena populations in the wild for future generations.

    Life lesson?

    Never judge a book by its cover (or a hyena by its cackle.) Hyenas are a complex species, a matriarch of communicative carnivores that deserve as much respect as any safari all-star.

    And there’s no doubt you will see packs of hyenas on an Easy Travel safari (The best place for hyena sightings is Ngorongoro Crater). Contact us today, and let’s start planning your Tanzanian safari.

    Getting you there?

    With over 30 years of experience, Easy Travel is an award-winning tour operator with extensive knowledge of the local wildlife in Tanzania. Our guides have decades of experience and know where to go, when to go, and how best to see these animals (and many more!).

    Click here for more info. Get up close and personal on our Comfort Wildlife Encounters tour. Alternatively, get in touch and build your lifetime journey.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    1. What are the different species of hyenas?

    Hyenas are members of the Hyaenidae family and comprise four distinct species: the spotted hyena, brown hyena, striped hyena, and aardwolf. The spotted hyena is the most recognized and has the widest distribution, whereas the brown and striped hyenas are comparatively less prevalent. Each species exhibits distinctive traits and behaviors, enhancing the overall diversity within the hyena family.

    2. Do hyenas live in social groups?

    Yes, hyenas are highly social animals and live in structured groups called clans. These clans are often led by a dominant female, with the hierarchy among individuals based on age, size, and aggression.

    Within these societies, female spotted hyenas hold higher ranks than males, and cooperation among clan members is crucial for hunting, raising offspring, and defending territories against rival clans or predators like hungry lions.

    3. How do hyenas communicate within their clans?

    Hyenas communicate using various vocalizations, including whoops, giggles, growls, and calls, which convey information about dominance, territory, and danger. Additionally, they use scent marking, visual displays, and body language to maintain social cohesion and establish hierarchies within the clan.

    These forms of communication play an essential role in coordinating group activities. This includes hunting and defending territories, ensuring the survival and success of the clan as a whole.

    4. What is the role of female spotted hyenas in their clans?

    Female spotted hyenas hold dominant positions within their clans, often leading hunting expeditions and making important decisions for the group. They are also responsible for maintaining order within the clan hierarchy and defending territory from intruders, including other hyena clans and hungry lions. Additionally, female spotted hyenas have pseudo-penises, which can be used for dominance displays and mating, further highlighting their unique role within hyena societies.

    5. How do hyenas hunt, and what do they eat?

    Hyenas are primarily scavengers but are also skilled hunters. They are capable of taking down prey much larger than themselves. They often hunt in coordinated groups, using teamwork and endurance to kill their prey.

    Hyenas have powerful jaws and sharp teeth, allowing them to crush bones and consume nearly every part of their kills. Their diet includes many animals, including antelopes, zebras, wildebeests, smaller mammals, birds, and reptiles.

    6. What is the reproductive behavior of hyenas?

    Female hyenas possess intricate reproductive systems, often mating with numerous males from their clan. Following a gestation period lasting approximately 90 to 110 days, these females deliver litters consisting of one to four hyena cubs, typically within a den.

    Cubs are born with their eyes open and can walk shortly after birth. The mother provides care and protection for the cubs, while other clan members may assist with nursing and defending them against potential threats.

    7. How do striped hyenas differ from spotted hyenas?

    Hyenas are members of the Hyaenidae family and comprise four distinct species: the spotted hyena, brown hyena, striped hyena, and aardwolf. The spotted hyena is the most recognized and has the widest distribution, whereas the brown and striped hyenas are comparatively less prevalent. Each species exhibits distinctive traits and behaviors, enhancing the overall diversity within the hyena family.

    8. What are the main threats to hyenas in the wild?

    Hyenas face various threats in their natural habitats, including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and retaliatory killings by farmers protecting their livestock. Additionally, competition with other predators, such as lions and leopards, for food and territory poses challenges to hyena populations. Conservation efforts focused on habitat protection, anti-poaching measures, and community-based initiatives are crucial for ensuring the long-term survival of hyenas and their ecosystems.

    9. How long do hyenas typically live in the wild?

    In their natural habitat, hyenas typically live for about 12 to 15 years on average. Still, this duration can fluctuate based on factors like habitat quality, food access, and the risk of predation. Yet, in captivity, hyenas may have extended lifespans, with some individuals surviving for over 20 years, mainly when provided with ideal living conditions.

    10. Do hyenas pose a threat to humans?

    While hyenas are potent predators and can be aggressive when defending their territories or scavenging for food, they generally avoid confrontations with humans. Instances of hyenas attacking humans are rare and typically occur when humans encroach on their habitats or disturb them unexpectedly. However, hyenas may become habituated to human presence in areas where human-wildlife conflict is prevalent and pose a greater risk.

    11. What are the distinguishing features of brown hyenas?

    Brown hyenas are the rarest and least studied of the hyena species. They are known for their shaggy, brown fur and distinctive facial features, including a sloping forehead and large, rounded ears.

    Brown hyenas have adapted to arid and semi-arid habitats, where they scavenge for food and dig dens in sandy soils. They are primarily nocturnal and solitary, although they may form loose social groups when resources are abundant.

    12. How do hyenas communicate through scent marking?

    Hyenas employ scent marking as a sophisticated method of communication, strategically leaving olfactory cues on various surfaces like rocks, trees, and shrubs. These markings contain vital information about the hyena’s territory, social hierarchy, and reproductive status, facilitating effective communication within their clan.

    Specialized glands near the anus and on their feet produce secretions with distinct chemical signatures, which other hyenas can discern using their acute sense of smell. This enables hyenas to recognize individuals, determine dominance, and coordinate collective behaviors, contributing to the cohesion and functioning of their social groups.

    13. What are the different species of hyenas?

    Hyenas encompass four distinct species: spotted hyenas, brown hyenas, striped hyenas, and aardwolves. Spotted hyenas are the largest and most renowned, often associated with the classic image of hyenas in popular culture.

    In contrast, brown and striped hyenas are smaller and receive less scientific attention, leading to gaps in our understanding of their behaviors and ecology. Despite belonging to the hyena family, aardwolves have a unique diet primarily consisting of insects, setting them apart from their carnivorous relatives.

    14. How do hyenas differ from other carnivores?

    Hyenas are categorized within the Feliformia sub-group of carnivores, including cats. Their powerful jaws, large teeth, and specialized digestive systems enable them to consume bones and other tough tissues that many other carnivores cannot.

    Furthermore, hyenas exhibit complex social structures and communicate through diverse vocalizations, which play crucial roles in maintaining their hierarchical societies and coordinating group activities. This unique combination of physical and behavioral adaptations has contributed to their success as apex predators in their ecosystems.

    15. What is the social structure of hyenas?

    Hyenas form hierarchical social structures, typically led by dominant females within the clan. Among spotted hyenas, females are larger and more dominant than males, establishing a strict social hierarchy.

    While striped and brown hyenas also live in social groups, but their social dynamics are less understood than spotted hyenas due to fewer studies on these species. However, they, too, exhibit social behaviors and likely adhere to a structured hierarchy within their respective clans.

    16. What do hyenas eat?

    Hyenas exhibit opportunistic feeding behavior, scavenging for carrion and hunting various prey, including wildebeests, zebras, and antelopes. Their powerful jaws and specialized teeth enable them to crush bones, accessing nutrient-rich marrow and bone content.

    Though scavenging is their primary source of food, hyenas also excel as hunters, employing coordinated group strategies to capture prey. During periods of limited food availability, they may resort to consuming vegetation as a supplementary source of nutrition.

    17. How do hyenas reproduce?

    Female hyenas possess pseudo-penises, a unique anatomical feature that serves multiple purposes, including urination, copulation, and giving birth. This pseudo-penis makes reproductive processes, such as mating and childbirth, particularly challenging for female hyenas.

    Despite these difficulties, hyenas give birth in dens, where they raise their cubs with the assistance of other clan members, including other females and sometimes even males. This communal rearing system ensures the survival and development of hyena cubs within the clan’s social structure.

    Musaddiq Gulamhussein - Owner - Easy Travel Tanzania

    About the author: Musaddiq

    Meet Musaddiq Gulamhussein, owner of Easy Travel Tanzania, a tour company creating life-changing safari experiences for over 35 years. Musaddiq has explored Tanzania, developing a deep understanding of the local cultures and traditions. Follow his journey and gain insights into the African Safari experience through Easy Travel's social media and blog.

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