Few animals have attracted such hatred and disparagement from humans as the Spotted Hyena - long regarded as a cowardly scavenger dependent upon the left-overs from the Lion - regal 'King of Beasts'. But long-term research projects in Tanzania, Botswana and elsewhere in Africa have shown this perception to be quite false, and have revealed the Spotted Hyena to be a fascinating animal and a highly sociable predator in its own right. Research has also revealed that female hyenas are dominant over males and are responsible for defending group territories. Male dominance is almost universal among mammals, but Spotted Hyena society is dominated by females, with the most senior male subordinate to the most junior female.
Life in the Clan
In undisturbed ecosystems, the Spotted Hyena typically lives in social groups known as clans, which contain around 30 or 40 individuals; clans may number up to 80 in the Serengeti. Female hyenas remain in the clan in which they were born, but the males leave the group when they are between two and three years of age. The communal den - often excavated at the base of a termite mound or drainage gully - is the social centre of the clan, with cubs of all ages belonging to several different mothers. Female cubs typically gain a rank immediately below that of their mother. One female - often the most senior or largest - is the matriarch, or clan leader.
Commuters of the Serengeti
In the Serengeti - where migratory wildebeest and gazelle make up the bulk of their prey - investigations by the Max-Planck and Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute has revealed that many Spotted Hyena undertake trips from the home den of between 40 and 80km, in order to find food. These commuting hyenas are therefore able to prey on the migratory herbivores no matter where they are in the ecosystem, and - through repeat journeys - actually cover more kilometres in a year than the wildebeest themselves. Cubs can remain un-fed for several days while their mother commutes to and from the herds, but the milk of hyenas has been shown to be four times as nutritious as that of cows, with a particularly high protein content.
Power Struggle with Lion
In areas where Spotted Hyena have been persecuted by man, the social fabric of the clan is quickly disrupted and their ability to prey on live animals is reduced. In such cases, smaller clans may subsist on the remains of lion kills, occasionally being bold enough to chase lionesses from food. Lions and Spotted Hyena are often engaged in a power struggle, with male lion sometimes going out of their way to attack and kill clan matriarchs and the hyenas being major predators of lion cubs. In Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, the Spotted Hyena population greatly exceeds that of the resident lions, which obtain a large proportion of the food by pirating hyena prey.
Spotted Hyenas are most active after dark but are more often seen during the day than any other large carnivore; they kill by running down their prey until it becomes exhausted - usually choosing lame or young antelope and zebra. The victim is then pulled apart and devoured - a messy but often quicker death than the slow strangulation employed by lion and leopard. Much food is obtained through scavenging, and they easily rob cheetah of their prey; hyenas have been seen to follow the movements of vultures descending from the sky to carrion. Powerful canines and molars allow hyenas to consume just about all of an animal, from hide and flesh to hooves and bones. The characteristic white droppings reflect the high calcium content of their diet. Meat and bones are only rarely brought back to the nursing den.
Hyenas and Man
Due to its ghostly whooping call and secretive nocturnal ways, the hyena is regarded as a witch or evil spirit in many African societies. For the Maasai, Karamajong and some other tribes, the hyena was (and still is in more remote locations) used as an 'undertaker' of sorts - consuming the body of the deceased and delivering a person's spirit to the afterlife. The Spotted Hyena is a frequent predator of sheep and goats and has been eliminated from commercial stock farms in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe; in these countries, the species is confined to wildlife reserves. There have been few attempts to reintroduce the Spotted Hyena to newly established wildlife reserves, although a successful programme has been conducted at Madikwe Game Reserve.
Anon. 1999. The Spotted Hyena. The Serengeti Ecosystem: Bulletin of the Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute, Arusha.
Kruuk, H. 1972. The Spotted Hyena: a Study of Predation and Social Behaviour.
Chicago University Press, Chicago.
Mills, G. 1997. Dens of Security. Africa Environment & Wildlife 5(1),
Black Eagle Publishers, Cape Town.
Posted: Mammals by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006