SPOTTED HYAENA also known as Laughing Hyaena

Scientific name: Crocuta crocuta

Afrikaans name: Gevelkte hiena

Swahili name: Nyangao or Fisi

Description

Spotted hyaenas weigh up to 70kg, but average between 45-55kg with the females being slightly larger than the males. Their shoulder height measures between 80 and 90 cm. Their coats are sandy or greyish brown and short with a spotted pattern. They have a very strong build with a thick neck and powerful jaws and have long front legs and short back legs causing their backs to slope.  The males and females have very similar genitalia, which can make identification extremely difficult. The Spotted Hyaena has a rough coat, a reddish brown or tan colour with black spots, which gradually lightens with age.

Photo courtesy of Heiko Kandler

Sounds

Spotted hyaena are well known for the sounds they make, particularly at night.  Spotted Hyaena have a wide variety of calls which they use to communicate with other members of their clan, as well as warning off other animals.  The best known sound is the high pitched cackling “laugh”, which is a sign of either excitement or fear, and is the reason for the name Laughing Hyaena.  Another common sound is a loud whooping sound used to call other members of the clan.

The sound console below includes three sound samples of spotted Hyaena.  The sound playing console may take a short time to load, particularly if you have a slow internet connection.  You will need the macromedia flash plugin to listen to these sounds.

Prey

Spotted hyaenas are usually thought of as scavengers and although they do scavenge they are also effective predators. They are opportunistic and will hunt a wide variety of prey from small mammals to the large ungulates. As they mostly hunt in groups they are capable of bringing down prey many times their own size. They usually hunt at night and once a kill is made they eat very quickly.   Studies carried out in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater areas of Tanzania by Dr Hans Kruuk showed that the Ngorongoro Spotted Hyena scavenged very little, with around 93% of carcasses being the result of their hunting rather than scavenging.  In contrast, the Serengeti Hyenas scavenged far more, with hunting making up only around 68% of the carcasses they were observed feeding on.  These ratios varied depending on the prey species.

When hunting, the spotted hyena will sometimes charge directly at a herd of wildebeest causing them to scatter.  As they scatter the hyena watch carefully, before singling out an individual target.  It is believed this scattering of the herd allows them to identify any member of the herd that is slower or weaker than the others thus making them easier to catch and kill.  When hunting as a group the spotted hyena is around five times more likely to make a kill than when hunting alone (74% success rate when hunting as a group compared to 15% when hunting alone).

Because of their size and working as a team, spotted hyaenas are capable of taking kills from other carnivores including Lions. With their strong teeth and powerful jaws there is very little left as they can easily crunch through the bones. Spotted Hyena usually feed as a group with their loud calls quickly summoning the rest of the clan to a kill.

As well as using their eyes and ears for hunting they have an acute sense of smell and can detect a carcass from several kilometres away. They are also capable of chasing their prey for long distances and a chase of 24km has been recorded showing that spotted hyaenas have excellent endurance.

The spotted hyena has very powerful jaws which enable it to bite through almost any bone in a carcass, and as a result they are able to eat virtually the entire carcass.  The bones are eaten along with the meat and skin, and this gives the Spotted Hyena’s droppings a distinctive white colour (due to the high content of powdered bone).

Studies in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater areas of Tanzania observed the Spotted Hyena preying on a wide variety of species.  Wildebeest were the most commonly hunted species, with Zebra and antelope such as the Thompson’s Gazelle also making up a significant proportion of their diet.  Spotted Hyena have also been observed killing and eating Hares, Waterbuck, Eland, Buffalo, porcupine, snakes, warthogs, domestic cattle, Lion, other Spotted Hyena, black rhino, Hippo, tortoise and many more species.  Hyena don’t just eat meat however, and have been observed fishing, eating ostrich eggs, vegetables, fruit, insects and even dung !  Spotted Hyena are also well known for chewing anything they find, including tyres on parked aircraft or vehicles, tin cans, shoes and boots, and anything else they find – including in at least one case, chewing through the brake line of a researchers land rover while she was studying their behaviour (Jane van Lawick Goodall).  When they come across an ostrich nest containing eggs the spotted hyena kicks an egg till it hits one of the other eggs hard enough to break it open so it can consume the egg.  In contrast the brown hyena is able to bite the eggs open even though it has slightly less powerful jaws.

Spoor

Spotted Hyaena spoor – front and back paws.

Group Structure

Spotted hyaenas are considered the most sociable of the carnivores and lives in large groups called “clans” which have a complex social structure. The clan has a strict dominance Hierarchy. The females are dominant over the males and they all defend their territory, which can range from 40km to over a 1,000 square kilometres. Even the lowest ranking female is dominant over the highest-ranking male. Young females stay in the clan and the males usual disperse at around two and a half years. Even though a clan’s size maybe as large as 80 individuals they often forage alone or in small groups. The clan is normally seen together at a den site or at large kills.

Reproduction

Females have their first litter at about 3 years old. Although all females can breed it is the more dominant females cubs that have the higher rate of survival. They give birth at the communal den and litter sizes average two cubs. If there is good prey availability there can be up to 30 cubs of different ages from 20 different litters. The cubs are suckled at the den site for 12 months by their respective mothers, although it has been recorded that they can suckle communally in difficult times.

The mother’s milk is one of the richest of all the terrestrial carnivores and so they have a prolonged nursing period and are not weaned until they are between 14-18 months old. Cubs are also born with their eyes open and there teeth fully erupted, which is unusual for carnivores. Littermates are aggressive towards each other within minutes after being born. This sorts out the hierarchy for suckling and because they have a full set of teeth they are capable of killing their siblings.

Photo courtesy of Heiko Kandler

Habitat and Density

Spotted hyaenas are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara with the exception of dense forest. They are adaptable to extreme environments and are found in coastal regions to mountain forests up to 4,000m. It is thought that there are 28,000-48,000 spotted hyaenas left in Africa. There are scattered populations in West and South Africa with larger populations in the rest of its former range.

Recommended Reading

Hans Kruuk:  The Spotted Hyena  Generally considered to be one of the definitive reference works on the Spotted Hyena

M.G.L. Mills: Kalahari Hyenas – comparative behavioural ecology of two species  Covers both Brown Hyena and Spotted Hyena

Hugo Van Lawick:  Innocent Killers  Covers Spotted Hyenas, African Wild Dogs and Golden Jackals.  More of a general book rather than containing detailed scientific data

These books can be difficult to obtain – the Hans Kruuk and Hugo van Lawick works in particular as they are out of print, but they can often be obtained through Amazon – use the box below to search Amazon.  Note for readers in the UK – it is worth checking amazon.com as well as amazon.co.uk as even allowing for shipping costs, it can sometimes work out cheaper to buy some of these books from the US.

Distribution in Namibia

Once widespread throughout Namibia, spotted hyaenas are now only found in Etosha National Park, the Kunene region, the Caprivi and Kavango and Bushmanland. A small population exists in the Namib desert in the south of the country. They are found in the Skeleton Coast National Park along the western extreme of Namibia. There are approximately 2000 -3,000 spotted hyaenas in Namibia.

Photo courtesy of Heiko Kandler

Trophy Hunting in Namibia and Cites

Spotted hyaenas are protected in Namibia, but are shot when they comes in to conflict with people.

Considered low risk in protected areas but threatened outside of these areas. They are a protected species in Namibia. Trophy hunting is only allowed when certain clans are causing problems on farmland and where the hunting activity will alleviate the problem.

Spotted Hyaena are not listed on CITES.

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