Spotted Hyena Social Structure

Females are Dominant

©Nigel Dennis
Hyenas live in clans dominated by the larger, more aggressive females. Each clan defends a territory of about 130 km². Females have a rank hierarchy among themselves and all females, and their female cubs, are dominant over all males. Female cubs inherit their mother’s status and they form coalitions around her in which they operate, i.e. hunt together. These coalitions, especially if lower ranked, will sometimes break away to form new clans where their status is improved. Young males leave the clan at two years of age to be inducted into a new clan, which will give them a slightly elevated status as they are genetically vigorous. They will work hard to gain social favour in order to mate with females. Sometimes males will simply remain alone.

Milk Fed Cubs

©Roger de la Harpe
The focus of a hyena clan centres around a communal den, usually a disused aardvark hole with multiple entrances for easy access, where all the females keep their young. Unlike lions they do not mutually suckle each other’s young but like lions, they come and go as they please, members separating and reuniting randomly. Adults seldom go inside the den where the cubs typically dig small tunnels to escape into if danger threatens. They remain at the entrance where they suckle their young on the richest milk of any terrestrial carnivore. The cubs remain within the confines of their maze-like den being fed on only milk for a protracted time, they only wean at 14 - 18 months old. The hyena’s strategy is to keep their young safe by leaving them at the den and thus out of harms way for as long as possible and to avoid the attention of competitors like lions by taking food back to them in the form of milk rather than actual meat.


©Roger de la Harpe
Hyena scent-mark their territories by wiping an everted anal gland over a shaft of grass and thereby deposit a strong-smelling secretion on it. This is known as pasting. Cubs as young as four weeks old begin practicing this.

By Megan Emmett