Spotted Hyena

© Roger de la Harpe

Name

Spotted hyena (crocuta crocuta)
Order - Carnivora
Family - Hyaenidae

Although its physical appearance would have us believe that it is related to dogs, the hyena is, in fact, more closely related to cats. Among the carnivore families, this unique animal enjoys its own family known as hyaenidae and is neither cat nor dog. There are four species in the hyaenidae family including the spotted hyena, brown hyena and aardwolf, which are found in Africa, and the striped hyena, found in Asia. By Megan Emmet

Appearance

Interestingly, female hyenas are dominant in the hyena social hierarchy and are larger than males in size. Males weigh 46-79 kg, whereas females weigh about 10 kg more at 56-80 kg. Both sexes are about 1.5m in length, with females measuring 850 mm at the shoulders. They are yellowish-brown in colour with dark spots and rounded ears. Female genitalia resembles that of the male's penis, being externally visible and complicating sex identification, this is known as a "pseudo-penis".

The spotted hyena has a characteristic sloping back, large head, ungraceful gait and a well-developed sense of smell unique to its species. Its macabre laugh is readily associated with nights in the African bush. Long believed to be but a scavenger related to the dog family, it is now understood that the spotted hyena is one of the most successful hunters, with more cat-like than dog-like features.

Spotted Hyena Diet

Some experts believe that the spotted hyena is the most successful carnivore in South Africa. Studies have disproved its assumed cowardly nature by establishing the spotted hyena as an efficient and strong hunter. A scavenger by choice, the spotted hyena can chase away lions from their kill to eat the prey.

Spotted hyenas hunt other animals and scavenge from carrion. They can chase their prey at 60 km/h for a distance of up to three kilometres. A pack of spotted hyenas can take prey as large as a gemsbok, eland or buffalo.

Spotted Hyena Breeding

After a gestation period of three and a half months, a litter of usually two young are born weighing 1.5 kg each. Having no specific breeding season, birthing may occur at any time of the year. They are only weaned between the ages of 12-16 months, living solely on their mother’s nutritious milk. They reach sexual maturity at the age of 2-3 years old.

Cubs are reared in communal dens which are seldomly guarded. Male hyenas are uninvolved in their upbringing, and only a few are allowed to go near the cubs’ den. The juvenile offspring of dominant females tend to bully these males. The dominant male within the group will father the majority of the cubs.

Spotted Hyena Behaviour

Hyenas live in territorial clans, protecting their area of land against other clans. Members leave to form new clans with fellow members or those of other clans. They are nocturnal animals, lying in thickets or dens – usually deserted aardvark burrows.

Spoor Description

Hyenas have four toes on their forefeet and hindfeet, with each toe having a short, heavy claw. The spoors of their forefeet are larger than that of the hind due to the heavy build of their forequarters. The full-grown spotted hyena is bigger than the brown hyena.

Where They Are Found

The spotted hyena is extinct throughout most of South Africa but can be found at Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Parks, the Northern Province and the northern areas of KwaZulu-Natal. They prefer open plains, semi-arid scrub and dry savannas as their habitat.