Hyena have what could be called, the worst reputation in the wild. Firstly, they are not the best looking guys around, they tend to loiter around laughing at everyone else and then, to add insult to injury, they steal food from their unsuspecting neighbours.
However they are probably the most misunderstood animals in the bush. Hyena are in fact some of the most incredible creatures, they are highly intelligent and have a deeply complex social structure. You just need to spend some time at a den to observe the intimate and intelligent relationships that exist between the different clan members.
The structure of a Hyena clan is pretty straightforward: females are in charge! Even the highest ranked male within a clan is ranked lower than the lowest ranked female. Yup, the males sit right at the bottom of the pecking order. Every aspect of daily life is determined by an animal’s rank; they literally live and die according to their social status.
The social standing of a hyena in a clan is determined by its mother’s ranking; this is decided according to how aggressive she is towards other clans when protecting her cubs, as well as how fiercely she fights for food in order to feed her young.
These females reign supreme, they are always in charge and they dominate every single male within their clan. Females are much bigger than males in size and much more powerful just by their sheer brute force, they also tend to be far more aggressive than the males. A single matriarch will lead any given clan, and these clans can number up to sixty animals.
Female hyenas stay in the clan which they were born into for their entire lives, while the male hyenas tend to come and go, often looking for mates (or perhaps just escaping from female domination!).
They are also some of the best mothers in the animal world, defending their young against any clan member. Young hyena will suckle for well over a year, and well beyond the time that hyena cubs will start to feed on solid food, which is uncommon in most mammals. Hyena milk is believed to have some of the highest protein and fat content of any terrestrial carnivore.
Hyena cubs are unique in the predator world. They are born with their eyes open and with canine and incisor teeth. These brown, cuddly balls of fluff are not quite as cute as they may appear at first sight – in many recorded cases cubs have been known to attack one another shortly after birth. This happens mostly in same sex litters, where the mother will usually give birth to between 2 and 4 young. These brutal assaults can often lead to the death of the weaker cubs!
Over time the black fur of the spotted hyena cubs takes on a lighter brown hue and then slowly the animal will start to develop spots. The colour of the adult animal’s fur varies from one individual to the next, but it also changes with age.
Hyenas have incredibly large heads, big shoulders and long, strong necks, which all combine to create a hugely powerful animal! They are able to pull a carcass to pieces in just minutes and they can pick up a huge chunk of meat and gallop off at high speed, often over vast distances.
The size of their heads is necessary to accommodate the extremely large masseter muscles which give the hyena an unbelievably strong bite and crushing force, these strong jaws are necessary in order to crunch through the massive bones they have a preference for.
Eating all these bones, which are extremely high in calcium, means that hyena have to have very hardy digestive systems, but it also explains why their poop is so white! Incredibly, hyena assist many other animals in the wild by providing them with “easy” access to the calcium tablet they may need, through their dung (yes, this requires eating another animals droppings).
Perhaps some light shed on these interesting and unusual animals may change your initial view of them? Maybe not…
So, when you are on safari next make sure that you invest some interest in hyena. Whether you are lucky enough to spend some time with a clan at a den, watching the cubs play and females keeping the males at bay, or catch up with them around a carcass, whooping and fighting over a meal, remember some of these interesting facts and try see these rowdy, unusual animals in a new light.