Published September 9, 2020
This unsavory illustration of hyenas in our popular imagination comes mainly from old myths and television, like Disney’s The Lion King. Some old African fables depict witches riding hyenas bareback. But hyenas are far from dumb, cackling drunkards of the savannah, nor are they evil, baby-eating witch transport. In an attempt to put such unfair stigma to rest once and for all, here is your essential briefing on the hyena, possibly the most misunderstood animal you will see on safari.
Introducing Hippopotamus: The Barrel-Bodied Submarines of the Serengeti
Introducing Hyena: The Misunderstood, Matriarchal Hunter Genius
Species Name: Spotted Hyena (Crotus crotus) is the most common species of hyena in Tanzania. There are 4 extant hyena species (spotted, striped, brown, aardwolf)
Average lifespan: 25 years Size: 2.5ft-3ft at the shoulder, 90-190 lbs. Can grow 4-6 feet long.
Range: Previously roamed Western Europe and the Russian Far East, but now only found widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Estimated Population: Worldwide: 10,000+; Tanzania: 7,000 Serengeti; 400-500 in Ngorongoro; 3,000-4,000 elsewhere.
Five Mind-Blowing Facts about Hyenas to Impress your Safari Group
1 - Ruled by Women
Whenever you spot a hyena in the Serengeti, your first thought should always be: that’s an animal dominated by female power. For hyenas, the women are in charge. They are more muscular, more aggressive, ten times heavier on average with triple the testosterone level of their male counterparts. For both male and female, their reproductive parts exist externally and they look very similar.
2 - As Socially Complex as Primates
Cartoons have depicted the hyena as dumb and crude, but this mere projection. Hyenas are actually one of the most intelligent and socially complex mammals in the world. Hyenas have a developed frontal cortex comparable to primates. Living in clans of 80-120, hyenas are subject to one of the longest-running studies of any wild animal, which concluded that they are socially just as complex as primates and are able to solve equally challenging cognitive puzzles. ( Source)
3 - More Cat than Dog
Before visiting the Serengeti I assumed hyenas were canines, like wild dogs or jackals. This is false. In fact, hyenas are more closely related to cats. As the most common carnivore in Africa, hyenas are actually part of a sub-group Feliformia, a classification for cat-like carnivores. ( Source)
4 - 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 his or her kill. Here’s an excellent short video explaining the hyena’s sophisticated communication system:
5 - Skilled Hunters, Not Scrappy Scavengers
Hyenas aren’t the janitors of the Serengeti, those that 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 (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)