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Did you know that there are a total of three species of hyena in the Hyaenidae family? These include the spotted hyena, the striped hyena, and the brown hyena.

The spotted hyena, fondly known as the “laughing hyena”, is found in sub-Saharan Africa. Their scientific name is Crocuta crocuta, and they are the second-largest four-legged predators on the African continent.

Spotted hyena are known to be pack hunters and take down large plain animals like African antelope, zebra, and wildebeest. They have a powerful bite that can crush a giraffe’s bones. While these omnivores are well-known as scavengers, they are actually one of the most successful hunters on the savanna.

The spotted hyena is famous for playing the role of giggly villains in cartoon movies. As one of the many spotted animals in Africa, these amazing creatures have some interesting facts worth learning about.

1. Hyena Homes Are Versatile

Adult spotted hyena and cubs at their den, Timbavati, South Africa

The spotted hyena can live in a range of habitats, including grasslands, woodlands, deserts, mountains, and forests found across sub-Saharan Africa. The largest population of spotted hyenas live in the Serengeti (Tanzania) and Kruger National Park (South Africa).

Unlike other mammals, spotted hyena sleep in dens but do not use them for resting. Instead, they find shaded tree canopies or other animals’ vacant holes during the day.

2. Spotted Hyenas Are Omnivores

As predators, the spotted hyena diet is mostly meat, but they are classed as omnivores. The average meal of a spotted hyena can weigh up to 14.5 kg – that’s a lot of meat. Typical prey of these spotted creatures includes zebra, wildebeest, and various antelope species.

If they cannot find their usual prey, spotted hyenas have been known to hunt and eat fish, snakes, birds, and vegetable matter.

3. Laughing Hyenas

Spotted hyena at first light, sticking its tongue out

Spotted hyenas are known as “laughing hyenas” due to their distinctive call that sounds like a human laughing. Their laugh indicates social status amongst their clan members. A clan of hyenas can vary in size but are usually between 80 and 100 members.

Scientists discovered that the tone and pitch in a hyena’s laugh could give an indication of age and social status. They communicate with whoops, cackles, and yells – some can be heard from almost 5 km away.

Hyenas also make 10 other vocalization sounds to communicate with other members in the clan.

4. Spotted Hyenas Kill Baby Lions

Hyenas and lions are mortal enemies. They often fight over territories and hunt the same prey. The fierce competition for resources between these two animals leads to ‘infanticide’ – the act of killing each other’s young.

5. Great At Problem-Solving

Spotted hyena planning their next move to take over a carcass from lions

The size of an animal’s frontal cortex is believed to be linked to its social intelligence. It has been found that the hyena’s frontal cortex is similar in size to primates.

A study done by Duke University demonstrated that a captive pair of spotted hyenas showed better social cooperation and problem-solving than primates (chimpanzees).

6. Female Hyenas Are the Alphas

As mentioned, spotted hyenas live together in groups, or in other words, clans. The clan can make up to 80 members, with females being the matriarch or alpha female.

Female hyena have three times more testosterone in their body than their male counterparts. As a result, they are built more muscular and display far more aggression than males.

7. The Female Spotted Hyena Has Male Genitalia

Two female hyenas sniffing each other, displaying their pseudo-penis

The female spotted hyena has an elongated clitoris, also known as a pseudo-penis. Some pseudo-penises grow up to 17.78 centimetres (7 inches) in length.

This can make gender identification difficult because the female genitalia superficially mimics the male reproductive organs.

8. Spotted Hyenas Aren’t Just Graveyard Lurkers

Spotted hyenas hunt and kill in packs, often isolating and chasing down old and weak prey. Regardless of what Simba would like you to believe, spotted hyenas don’t only scavenge for lions’ leftovers. They hunt and kill 95 percent of their prey – reaching a top speed of 60 km/h (37 mph) when chasing their next meal.

A pack of spotted hyenas can devour an entire antelope, under half an hour, leaving no leftovers. This includes their skins, hooves, and bones. They also eat lizards, snakes, insects, and birds.

Spotted hyenas have unique acids in their stomach, allowing them to digest materials such as bones – where other animals cannot. Hyenas can eat one-third of their body weight – a rather large mouthful.

9. Hyenas Have Super-Strong Jaw and Teeth

Spotted hyena biting each other playfully, one of them revealing its teeth

Hyenas are equipped with sharp teeth and jaws. In fact, the spotted hyena’s jaw is the strongest out of the entire animal kingdom.

They can chomp through just about every part of their prey, except the horns. Their feces are white as snow from all the calcium they eat.

10. The Hyena’s Birthing Process is Dangerous

The female hyena has a gestation period of three and a half months and gives birth to one or two cubs (per litter) per year. A newborn cub usually weighs around 1.5 kg (3 pounds) each. They are not weaned from their mothers for 12-16 months.

The female spotted hyena uses her pseudo-penis for copulation, birth, and urination. Because the pseudo-penis is used for birthing, complications can arise as the birth canal is particularly narrow. An estimate of 60 percent of cubs dies from suffocation during the birthing process.

In addition, the mother’s life is also at risk. Baby spotted hyenas can tear her pseudo-penis lining, causing injury and even death.

The mother nurses her cubs in a den and then upgrades them to a ‘kindergarten’ when they are old enough. A spotted hyena’s milk has the highest protein content compared to any land carnivore. When the cubs have grown up, the males often leave to join a different clan while females remain in the same one.

11. A Hyena’s Greeting Ceremony is Unusual

Hyena greeting, Masai Mara, Kenya

When a spotted hyena comes into contact with another after a long separation, they take part in a greeting ceremony.

These ceremonies consist of both males and females who greet each other and develop erections.

The females and males use this form of ceremonial greeting to reinforce group bonding with other members and with kins.

12. The Males Rank Last

The life of a male spotted hyena is tough. In a female-dominated clan, the adult males are at the lowest position. Male hyenas reach sexual maturity at the age of two and have to leave home to find a new clan. The joining of a new group can be a vicious process.

Once the female alpha of the group allows the male in, he is in “probation” and has a constant battle for food and women. Biologists call this “endurance rivalry.” This probation period lasts for about two years. The dominant males usually father most of the offspring in the clan.

The power structure within a clan is strict, and males are ranked last. They receive abuse from even the most obnoxious youngsters. At dinner time, adult males eat last while the rest of the clan feasts away in front of them.

13. Identified by Splattered Dark Spots

Spotted hyena chewing on the jaw of a dead buffalo

The spotted hyena is yellowish-brown in color, with round ears and splattered with dark sports.

They have an unusual appearance with uneven legs, a long powerful neck, a short upright mane, and short thick fur covered in spots. The hyena’s mane stands up along its neck. It’s used to make the individual appear larger and intimidate predators or rivals. They have four toes on all four legs.

They also have large forequarters used to carry heavy carcasses. The head, powerful jaw, and neck are equipped with strong muscles to crush and tear their meat.

The spotted hyena can be identified from the brown hyena by their smaller and rounder ears. As a spotted hyena ages, its spots become lighter.

In summary:

  • A spotted hyena body can grow up to 2 meters long (6.5 feet)
  • Their bushy tails grow to be 25-30 cm (9.8 -11.8 inches) in length
  • They stand 71-88 cm tall
  • They weigh between 40.8-86 kg (90 to 190 pounds)

Extra Fun Facts About the Spotted Hyena

Spotted hyena running at full speed, Kgalagadi

  • Although their physical appearance would have us think that hyenas are related to dogs, the spotted hyena is more closely related to cats. More so, they actually have a family of their own, the Hyaenidae family.
  • Many historians theorized that hyenas were domesticated by Egyptians and used them as a food source.
  • Hyena fossils have been discovered in Europe, Asia, and North America. However, for the last 8,000 years the spotted hyena has called Africa home.
  • The spotted hyena can trot 10 kilometers (6 miles) per hour without getting tired.
  • They are excellent swimmers.
  • Instead of burying their dead, the Maasai people leave them to be consumed by hyenas.
  • Hyenas can go without water for a couple of days.
  • The spotted hyena’s laugh became popular in the Disney movie ‘The Lion King.’

Going Beyond Clichés About Spotted Hyenas

These hardy beasts have a complicated relationship with people and are blamed for snacking on many of their livestock. However, when it comes to eating, they don’t waste a morsel.

Hyenas are amazing four-legged mammals and are sorely mistaken as being nature’s scavengers. They are built as one of Africa’s most successful predators.

Spotted hyenas have an excellent sense of smell, sight, and an acute sense of hearing. Witnessing the sights and sounds of such spectacular carnivores is on the bucket list of many travellers who go on safari.

Hopefully, these facts have helped deepen your respect for the “giggly villains”. 😉