Hyenas: Africa’s Most Obnoxious Carnivores


Hyenas: Africa’s Most Obnoxious Carnivores

Hyenas are among the most misunderstood animals in the wild, often depicted as cowardly scavengers in folklore and media. However, these complex creatures exhibit fascinating behaviors and play a crucial role in their ecosystems. This comprehensive exploration delves into their world, covering their classification, habitats, social behavior, hunting and scavenging habits, and the unique traits that set them apart from other African carnivores.


They are not the craven scavengers of popular imagination but rather intelligent, highly social animals that are adept hunters with complex social structures. Each species has adapted to survive in diverse habitats across Africa and parts of Asia, displaying a range of feeding habits that contribute significantly to the ecological balance of their environments.

Amazing Fact

One of the most astonishing aspects, is their bone-crushing jaw strength. Among the strongest of any mammal, their bite force can exert pressure of about 1,100 pounds per square inch (psi), enabling them to crush bones and access marrow, which is a crucial part of their diet.

The Misunderstood Scavenger and Skilled Hunter

The spotted hyena has been extensively studied and is recognized for its hunting prowess and social complexity. Contrary to their common perception as mere scavengers, studies have shown that spotted hyenas are successful hunters, often hunting as much as 95% of the food they consume. They are capable of taking down large prey such as wildebeest and zebra, employing teamwork and strategic planning that rivals that of some of the most celebrated predators, including lions and wolves.

Predator Vs Scavenger

Habitat and Distribution

They inhabit a range of environments, from the savannahs and grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa to the forests and mountains of North and East Africa, and even the arid deserts of the Middle East and India. Each species has adapted to its specific habitat.

Types and subspecies of Hyenas

  1. Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta): Known for their social clans and distinct laughing vocalizations, they are the largest and most common.
  2. Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena): Recognizable by their less pronounced spots and striped torso, they lead more solitary lives.
  3. Brown Hyena (Hyaena brunnea): Found primarily in southern Africa, they have long, shaggy, dark brown fur.
  4. Aardwolf (Proteles cristata): Unlike its cousins, the aardwolf primarily feeds on termites and insects, resembling a small, striped hyena.

Social Behavior and Intelligence

They are particularly noted for their complex social behavior, living in large, matriarchal clans that can include up to 80 individuals. These clans are structured hierarchically, with females typically outranking males. They recognize clan members individually and maintain social bonds through a variety of vocalizations, body postures, and grooming behaviors. Their intelligence is evident in their social interactions, hunting strategies, and problem-solving abilities. They communicate through an array of sounds, from whoops to groans, which serve to coordinate hunts, strengthen social bonds, and defend territory.

Reproduction and Lifecycle

Their societies are matriarchal, with females being larger and more dominant than males. Spotted hyena females have a unique reproductive anatomy with an elongated clitoris resembling a male’s penis, a feature unique among mammals. This characteristic can make sex determination difficult for the untrained observer. They have a gestation period of around 110 days, after which females give birth to one to four cubs. Cubs are born with their eyes open and their teeth erupted, ready to start interacting with their environment. The high mortality rate among cubs is countered by the attentive care they receive from their mothers and other females in the clan.

Human-Hyena Conflict

Hyenas and humans have coexisted for millennia, with hyenas often portrayed negatively in folklore and popular culture. In reality, they rarely attack humans unless provoked or when human encroachment on their territories limits their natural prey, leading them to target livestock. Efforts to mitigate human-hyena conflict include better livestock management practices, conservation education, and initiatives to protect natural prey populations.

Unique Adaptations

They have evolved several unique adaptations that contribute to their survival. Their powerful jaws and digestive system allow them to process bones and other materials that other predators cannot digest, effectively removing potentially harmful pathogens from their environment. The social structure of spotted hyenas, including their cooperative hunting and complex communication, demonstrates an advanced level of cognitive ability that challenges many preconceived notions about these animals.


Their rich social structures, remarkable adaptability, and misunderstood role in the ecosystem, are a testament to the complexity and diversity of the animal kingdom. Far from being mere scavengers, they are skilled hunters, intelligent, and social creatures that contribute significantly to the ecological balance.




Q: Are they more closely related to dogs or cats?
A: Despite their dog-like appearance, they are more closely related to cats, falling under the suborder Feliformia.

Q: Can they laugh?
A: The “laugh” is actually a form of communication used to express excitement or stress, not amusement.

Q: How do they contribute to their ecosystem?
They play a critical role in their ecosystem as both predators and scavengers, helping control prey populations and cleaning up carcasses, which prevent the spread of diseases.

Q: Do hyenas have any natural predators?
They have few natural predators due to their strength and social structures, but lions and packs of wild dogs can pose threats, especially to young or isolated individuals.

Through a comprehensive examination of hyenas, it becomes clear that these creatures are not the villains of the animal world but rather crucial participants in their ecosystems, deserving of respect and protection. Their unique characteristics and behaviors underscore the importance of preserving biodiversity and the interconnectedness of all life forms.

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