Hyenas are among the most under-recognized and misunderstood species in the animal kingdom. Axel Hunnicutt, our resident expert on spotted hyenas, shares ten incredible facts. Axel currently leads the Mun-Ya-Wana Spotted Hyena Project in South Africa. He is also a member of the IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group and is currently working towards his Ph.D. research on the spotted Hyena and its decline in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
1. They are skilled hunters
The spotted hyena has been accused of being a scavenger for a long time. They usually eat lions’ food, which is a particular problem. Studies have shown that hyenas eat between 66-90% off and are highly skilled and successful hunters when comes down to hunting. Hyenas are cursorial hunters and can run down prey until exhaustion. They cruise at speeds up to 37 mph (60 km/h) for miles. Spotted Hyenas are capable of taking down prey up to twice their size. They can even kill giraffes and cape buffalo.
The hyena’s high success rate means that the lions provide food for the inept hyena. Multiple studies have shown that lions are more likely than the hyena to kill the hyena.
Also, read 6 Interesting Facts About Eubacteria
2. They make great mothers
A gorilla with her baby in her arms or a cat feeding her kittens are two examples of nature’s greatest mothers. Usually not a spotted Hyena. Hyenas are surprisingly one of the most energetic mothers in the animal kingdom. They spend more energy on each cub than any terrestrial carnivore. One to three tiny, jet-black cubs are born to Hyenas. Some call them pups, but naturalists first thought they looked like bear cubs. Hyena cubs can be called “precocial” because they are born at a later stage of development, with their eyes open, teeth intact, and muscles ready to go. This is unlike other cat species, which are often born blind and helpless for many weeks.
Spotted Hyena mothers produce high-quality, protein-rich milk. They produce it for long periods of time and a lot of it. During the first six months of their lives, hyena cubs depend on milk and will continue nursing for another year. This is a lot of stress for a single mother, as hyenas don’t cross-suckle, even among closely related females.
3. They are extremely intelligent
Sometimes portrayed as dull and foolish, possibly due to their lack of laughter or vocalizations, spotted Hyenas are shockingly intelligent, with intelligence comparable to that of most wild animals in Africa. The hyena’s intelligence mimics our intelligence and is based on complex social behaviors that drive brain evolution. Experiments showed that spotted hyenas performed better than chimpanzees at solving group or collective problems. This suggests that hyena intelligence might surpass great apes’ intelligence in certain areas. Anyone who has ever spent time with spotted Hyenas in the wild will be able to attest to their curiosity and inquisitive nature. Even hyenas using basic tools to escape from cage traps have been something I have witnessed.
4. They can count
Studies have shown that spotted Hyenas can count the number of hyenas living in a rival clan to determine their best course of action. After a quick census, males who want to join a new clan will join the one with the fewest males. Although it may not be calculus, the spotted hyenas can count.
5. Females have unusual and complicated genitals
However, the most common false accusation against hyenas is that they are hermaphrodites. Although this is false, there are good reasons why it was believed to be true. The pseudopenis and the pseduoscotum of female spotted hyenas are very similar to the male anatomy. The pseudopenis actually refers to her clitoris. It has evolved to mirror the anatomy of a male with all the urogenital tracks running through it. This structure is used by females to urinate, have sex and give birth.
Although the reason for male mimicry is still not fully understood, it could be due to the evolutionary advantages of being able to look like a male and even be confused. One theory is that males evolved to be more aggressive during hyena evolution. Females that mimic their appearances, size, and even genital anatomy were more likely to pass on their genes.
6. They are strong jaw-sharps
This bite can crush and kill bones. Spotted Hyena jaws have developed colossal masseter muscles (jaws) to generate massive amounts of force in one section of their dentition, the molars or premolars. Spotted hyenas are capable of breaking open bones up to 2 1/2 inches in size and can exert more than 1,100 psi (or around 9,000 newtons, depending on which studies you read). This allows hyenas access to the rich, nutritious marrow that is not accessible to other animals.
7. They live a remarkable life expectancy
Spotted hyenas, unlike dogs and other canine species that live up to 6-10 years, or wild felids such as lions, and tigers, which can live up to 10-15 years, can live into their 20s in the wild. This makes them one of the longest-living terrestrial carnivores. After sexual maturity, it takes 35 months for a large carnivore to reach 95% skull maturity. This is the longest time period for large carnivores. In captivity, the longest-lived spotted hyena lived until 41 years and one month!
Also, read 15 MISUNDERSTOOD FACTS ABOUT SKUNKS
8. They are a conquerors’ people.
The spotted hyena is one of the most successful large carnivores. They can be found in most of Africa and in many habitats. The Eurasian spotted Hyena was a species that existed between 10 and 200.000 years ago. It is possible that it was a subspecies or the same species as the hyenas today. They lived from Eastern Siberia to the British Isles. The spotted Hyena ruled large areas of three continents and competed directly with humans for caves and resources. The presence of hyenas in Siberia may have prevented the spread of people to the Americas through the Bering Strait.
9. They are extremely socially complex
Spotted hyenas can live in social groups called “clans,” which can include as many as 130 people. But unlike lion pride or wolf packs, hyenas rarely live in large groups. Instead, they are usually found alone or in small groups and only meet up occasionally. This is known as a “fusion-fission” society. These clans consist of closely related females who are the most dominant.
Their cubs take the rank below their mother. Non-natal males, who have immigrated from another clan once they reach sexual maturity, are also included. These male immigrant immigrants have the lowest social ranks in the order they arrived at the clan. They are also outranked by their cubs, who have just reached sexual maturity.
This linear social ranking is very similar to that of old-world monkeys. However, the dominance of the female is unique for large carnivores. There is a matriarch, the socially dominant female in the clan. However, complex friendships and political alliances make up the social network. This becomes even more evident when the matriarch passes away, and power vacuums ensue.
10. They are vocal
Because of their complex social nature, the spotted hyena can sing in a way that is unlike any other carnivore. The spotted hyena is best known for their laughter or giggle. However, it isn’t funny. In general, it’s an expression of social anxiety and uncertainty.