Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 37 to 59 inches (95 to 150 centimeters)
Shoulder height: 29.5 to 33 inches (75 to 85 centimeters)
Weight: 99 to 176 pounds (45 to 80 kilograms)
Life span: up to 20 years in the wild, up to 41 years in zoos
Gestation: 4 months
Number of young at birth: 1 to 4
Weight at birth: 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms)
Age of maturity: 3 years
Conservation status: lower risk
What a mouthful! Hyenas can eat one-third their body weight at one meal.
Spotted hyenas can digest things that most other animals cannot, like skin and bone. Special acies in their stomach break down these rare delicacies.
Hyena fossils have been found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa; but for the last 8,000 years, the spotted hyena has lived only in Africa.
Spotted hyenas can trot at 6 miles per hour (10 kilometers per hour) without getting tired for long distances. They can run up to 30 miles per hour (50 kilometers per hour) and are also good swimmers.
Listen to a spotted hyena's call!
Mammals: Spotted Hyena
The spotted hyena's back slopes down, as its front legs are longer than its hind ones, yet it is quite agile.
Is it a dog?
So, you think you know all about spotted hyenas—the ones known to "laugh"? They're in lots of cartoons and movies, and they're usually in the role of giggly villains. But is that really a fair description?
Although dog-like in appearance, the spotted hyena is more closely related to cats, civets, and genets. Also called the laughing hyena, this interesting carnivore is found throughout Africa below the Sahara Desert, living in savannas, semiarid regions, scrublands and, in some cases, in mountainous areas. The spotted hyena is thought to be the strongest, most capable hunter of any predator its size. It is the largest member of the hyena family (other members are the striped hyena, brown hyena, and aardwolf). Female spotted hyenas are a bit larger than the males, but otherwise they look exactly the same.
A nose that never stops sniffing, spotted hyenas are always on the alert for danger—or a meal!
A little of this, a little of that
The spotted hyena looks a bit thrown together. It has a large head with a long, thick, muscular neck and powerful jaws that give the hyena the strongest bite of any mammal. Its front legs are longer than its back legs, giving the animal a hunched look, and its paws have four toes with nonretractable claws. The short, coarse fur has a yellow or gray tint and is covered in spots, which are darker on younger hyenas. The spotted hyena has a short mane that is always standing upright, making the hyena look bigger and more dangerous to opponents. Its only true predators are lions and humans.
A complex clan
The social system of spotted hyenas is very complex. There can be 50 to 100 individuals in a “clan.” Spotted hyenas have a matriarchal society. The females are larger and much more assertive and aggressive than the males. A lower-ranking female’s cubs rank higher than the highest-ranking males. Lower-ranking males are forced to stay on the outskirts of the clan and only allowed to participate during a hunt or a fight.
The spotted hyena is the most social of the hyena family and lives in a large group called a clan.
Hee hee, haw haw!
Spotted hyenas are known for their very distinctive vocalizations. In fact, they are one of the most vocal mammals in Africa, with over 11 different sounds that researchers have recorded. The famous chatter they produce actually sounds like a human laughing hysterically. This “laugh” is used during times of nervous excitement or submission to a dominant hyena. The "whoop" is a call that can be heard from far away and is used to find cubs, claim territory, or bring the clan together. Groans and squeals are used to greet each other. Other sounds include grunting, growling, and yelling. Besides communicating with each other, hyenas will use their calls and scent marks to mark their territory.
With its powerful bite, the hyena is known for its bone-crushing abilities.
Don’t eat that!
Spotted hyenas give new meaning to the phrase "lick the platter clean." They eat practically every part of the animal, including skin, hooves, bone, and teeth. Powerful jaws are able to crush bones with ease. They actually prefer skin and bone to eating meat. Most other predators won’t even try to eat those things. There are some items that hyenas can’t digest, such as hair and horns, although they still eat them. Spotted hyenas regurgitate what they can’t digest in the form of a pellet.
At the San Diego Zoo, the spotted hyenas are offered zoo carnivore diet. In addition, they receive cow femur bones twice a week; mice, rats, and rabbits once a week; and treats of beef heart, different dry foods, yams and carrots, and fish.
What spotted hyenas eat and how they get their food depends on the time of day. Most people think hyenas are scavengers only. Spotted hyenas do scavenge during the day, but they have to compete with jackals and vultures for these leftovers. In a large group, spotted hyenas are able to chase lions away from a kill. But at night the hyena's impressive hunting skills come into play. Able to chase down prey over long distances while running at up to 37 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour), spotted hyenas often pick out the young or weak from the herd. What they hunt depends on numbers: the bigger the hyena clan, the larger the prey, from young rhinos, adult wildebeest, and zebras to Cape buffalo. The hyenas work in an organized pack when hunting such large prey. Smaller packs are used to chase down gazelles, eland, impalas, warthogs, and waterbucks.
When hunting alone, a spotted hyena goes after smaller prey such as ground birds, rabbits, springhare, bat-eared foxes, porcupines, jackals, fish, and puff adders—even an ostrich egg is fair game! They will eat quite a bit at one time, and any leftovers are buried in a mud hole for a later meal.
Spotted hyena cubs have dark fur for their first two months.
Life starts out rough for a young hyena cub. The average litter has two cubs, and the competition between them starts right away. Cubs are born with dark fur, their eyes open, and some teeth already present. They fight over who will be the dominant one and nurse first, sometimes killing their weaker sibling. Mom keeps the cubs in a private den at first to ensure their survival. The spotted hyena is the only hyena species that uses specific dens to shelter cubs.
At two to six weeks of age, the mother moves the cubs to a den shared by others where they can meet the rest of the clan and begin to establish their rank. How they hunt, how they eat, and how they fight are all determined by rank within the clan. At about two months of age, the cub loses its brown coat and begins to look like the spotted adults. Female cubs always stay with their birth clan, but the males are forced out upon maturity at around age three, if not sooner.
Lions and hyenas compete over the same food in overlapping territories. Sometimes the hyenas do the work of organizing, chasing down, and killing prey only to have lions "steal" it. Both hyenas and lions mark and establish territories, and both species are always on guard.
Spotted hyenas are great swimmers and may swim after escaping prey.
Garbage collectors of the Serengeti
Spotted hyenas play a major role in Africa. They help control populations of a wide variety of species, and, because they'll eat almost anything they appear to clean up everything in their path. While spotted hyenas are not threatened at the moment, things could change. Drought can have drastic effects on the food chain, from herbivores to carnivores.
Hyenas do not hunt humans, although there are rare reports of killings, yet humans have been caught shooting hyenas on the spot just because of what they are. The spotted hyena is a clever creature that should bring a chuckle to your heart!