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Spotted Hyena – The second largest predator in Africa

Spotted hyena the second largest carnivore in Africa

The Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta), is the largest species of hyena and is member of the Hyaenidae family and the unique member of the Crocuta genus.

Spotted hyenas are built more-like bears, they have round ears and a very strong bite that can crush even the largest bones, this is the reason why hyenas usually consume their prey entirely.

Brief history of the Spotted Hyena

The earliest known depictions of hyenas appear in the carvings and paintings found in the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves in France.

These carnivorous mammals have a pretty bad reputation in both the African folklore and the Western culture being considered ugly, greedy and foolish, but also a powerful, dangerous and a ruthless predator.

One of the earliest mentions about hyenas appear in Strabo’s Geographica (an encyclopedia of geographical knowledge written in 17 ‘books’ during the Roman Empire by the Greek geographer, philosopher and historian Strabo) where says that hyenas represent a mix between a wolf and a dog from Ethiopia.

More detailed descriptions about the spotted hyenas (XVII century) are coming from Willem Bosman (a Dutch tradesman), and Peter Kolbe (a German mathematician and astronomer), but they considered these animals as being “tigerwolves”, so they labeled them as wolves.

In 1771, Thomas Pennant (a Welsh naturalist) made the first differentiation between the spotted hyena and the striped hyena.

His description was pretty precise, and it was later included in the Systema regni animalis by Johann Erxleben (a German naturalist).

Only in 1828, the spotted hyena (Crocuta) was officially recognized as a separate genus of the Hyaena family.

Taxonomy and Origins of the Spotted Hyena

About 10 million years ago, the ancestors of the spotted hyena (genus Crocuta) diverged from the other members of the Hyena family (the striped hyena and the brown hyena).

The ancestors of the spotted hyenas developed a social behavior, maybe as a response to the increased presence of the other predators at carcasses and they have started to work together in groups.

At a certain moment in their evolution, these ferocious carnivores started to develop sharp carnassials at the back of the crushing premolars, so they no longer needed to wait for the prey to die (as in the case of the striped and brown hyena).

This way, they’ve become successful group hunters and also efficient scavengers.

Because their prey has been often migratory, they have started to occupy larger territories due to the fact that the long chases after the prey often made them to enter another clan’s territory.

There are several theories regarding the female dominance in the spotted hyena clans, one saying that the female dominance is an adaptation that allows them to compete against males on kills and also ensures enough milk for their cubs.

Another theory is also related to the cubs and says that the female dominance is required to ensure that the cubs will have enough time for growing and developing massive skulls and jaws.

It seems that the spotted hyena has appeared in Europe and Asia (China) in the Cromerian period (a stage consisting of multiple glacial and interglacial periods in the Middle Pleistocene epoch).

The apparition of the spotted hyena on the European and Asian continent seems to coincide with the decline and eventual extinction of the giant short-faced hyena (Pachycrocuta brevirostris), which was mostly generated due to the competition with the clans of spotted hyenas.

Spotted Hyena Characteristics

Spotted hyenas are smaller than their extinct cousins, which lived in Europe and Asia and had a weight around 225 lbs (102 kg).

Spotted hyenas are today the largest extant members of the Hyaenidae family and their size may vary from one area to another.

Spotted hyenas in Zambia tend to be larger and heavier with adults having a shoulder height between 28 and 36 inches (70 – 92 cm), a body weight between 153 lbs (69 kg) for females, and 149 lbs (67.5 kg) for males.

Spotted hyenas in the Serengeti are slightly smaller than their relatives living in Zambia, the males weighing between 89 and 121 lbs (40 to 55 kg), and the females between 98 and 141 lbs (45 – 64 kg).

Spotted Hyena Behavior

Spotted hyenas are very social animals living in larger communities than lions do.

A community of spotted hyenas is called clan and can consist up to 80 individuals.

The clan is dominated by females and the number of the clan members varies after the type of prey they hunt and eat.

In areas where the prey is sedentary, the clans are larger and the individuals are a little heavier than the hyenas living in clans that are hunting migratory prey, which require chases on longer distances.

The dominance of the females is so impressive inside the spotted hyena clans, than even the lowest ranking females will be more dominant than even the highest ranking males.

This might be the reason why males usually leave the clan at around the age of 30 months (2½ years).

High-ranking hyenas always maintain their position in the clan through aggression and if a lower ranking hyena will disobey the leader will always be severely punished.

The offsprings of the very dominant females will always outrank lower ranking females and males inside the clan.
The spotted hyena society is more evolved and complex than the society of other carnivores, and this is the reason why they are so successful when hunting prey, owning or stealing the kills of other carnivores.

The fact that the spotted hyena females are so dominant can be easily seen even in the female fetus where a pseudo-penis appears even before the differentiation of the fetal ovary and adrenal gland.

Hyena cubs are pretty small at birth 3 lbs (1.5 kg) they have soft brownish black hair, but they are born with their eyes open and they already have pretty long canine teeth (6 to 7 mm long) and tiny incisors (4 mm).

The cubs show aggression right after birth because they start attacking other cubs inside the den.

Weaker cubs are this way eliminated from the clan.

A hyena den is a pretty large underground nest that is used to give birth and grow the cubs.

At the age of ten days the cubs already move considerably fast and they start losing their brownish black hair, which is replaced at the age of 2 to 3 months with the spotted, lighter colored coat of the adults.

Hunting and Hyena Diet

Spotted hyenas like to hunt medium to large sized prey, but they often choose to attack younger or older animals or even the injured ones.

They also watch for vultures because they know that where the vultures are flying in a circle, there can be something to eat.

Spotted hyenas often hunt alone, but if they catch the prey (let’s say a wildebeest) other hyenas from the same clan may join the feast.

Because they live and hunt in the territory of the lions and other dangerous predators, spotted hyenas tend to eat the prey alive.

They don’t have time to kill the prey, they only want to immobilize the prey by cutting its leg ligaments and eat it alive as quick as possible to avoid losing it.

Spotted hyenas hunt zebras and large antelopes, but for catching very fast gazelles they chase them for long distances to exhaust them (hyenas have good stamina).

If the prey is larger (a buffalo or an elephant) spotted hyenas will attack in group and they will try to avoid any possible injury (this is the reason why they usually don’t attack giraffes).

They also like to steal kills from other predators such as lions, leopards and so on.

To achieve this, they use the force of the group that can chase away even the lions from a kill due to the massive pressure of the clan put on the lions.

Spotted hyenas like to eat all kinds of animals, herbivores and even other predators (to reduce competition), but rarely they can attack and eat people (if the prey is hard to find).

They are the perfect scavengers, they are considered the sharks of the savannah, so the spotted hyena clans are actually the perfect cleaners of the savannah.

Competition from other predators

Spotted hyenas live in the territory of the lions, which are considered the biggest enemies of the hyenas.

It is said that hyenas clans steal the kill from lions, but this is rare, in fact, the lions are often seen to steal the kill from hyenas (male lions are doing this often).

Other enemies of the spotted hyenas are the wild dogs that always attack in group to chase off the hyenas from the kill.

Other enemies of the spotted hyenas are the wild dogs that always attack in group to chase off the hyenas from the kill.

Leopards also steal prey from hyenas, and if they see an opportunity for a free meal, they don’t hesitate to kill lonely or wounded hyenas and take them into the tree to eat them.

Spotted Hyena Health

Adult spotted hyenas have a pretty strong health because they have antibodies against dangerous diseases such as: rabies, canine herpes, canine parvovirus, leptospirosis, canine brucella, bovine brucella, feline calici, anaplasmosis and rinderpest.

However, they are vulnerable to Trypanosoma congolense (a dangerous pathogenic agent that provokes the nagana disease), which is ingested while eating herbivores that are already infected with this pathogenic agent.

They are also carriers of dangerous parasites such as Taenia hyaenae, Trichinella spiralis and others.

Spotted Hyena Range and Habitat

Today, spotted hyenas can be found especially in West Africa, including the Guinea and Sudan savannahs.

Spotted hyenas can also be found in semi-deserts, savannahs, dense and dry woodlands, open woodlands and also in mountainous forests up to an altitude of 2.5 miles (4,000 m).

Spotted hyena populations are mostly located today in protected areas and in the surrounding territories, in African countries such as: Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana and the Transvaal Lowveld areas in South Africa.

Spotted hyena distribution in 2018

Spotted hyena distribution in 2018.

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.