Unlike the other pages on this site about African animals, I will start this one with a story:
I have always had a great interest in animal ethology (animal behaviour) and have read many books on the subject. So, when I go out on safari, it is the animal behaviour (not just sightings of animals) that is of particular interest to me. One particular safari on the Masai Mara during a trip to Kenya in September 2007 stands out in my mind as having been one of my most interesting game drives in this regard. The subject of my intrigue was a spotted hyaena who, if I hadn't had scientific training, I would swear appeared to be exhibiting grief!
What happened was that we came upon a dead spotted hyaena being eaten by vultures, as you can see in the photo below. As we watched, I noticed another of the same species running over the plains towards us - "enticed", in the way of hyaenas, by the wafting smell of rotting flesh and the vultures flying overhead. Now this was going to be interesting, I thought; would it join in the feast or not?
The visiting hyaena made its way down through the scrub by the track to where the dead hyaena lay, scattered some of the vultures aside, and proceeded to sniff it. So fascinated was I with what might happen next, I didn't get any photos of the hyaena by the carcas!
Just as I thought said hyaena was going to tuck in, it stiffened, backed off, paused, receded into the scrub and turned around looking in the dead hyaena's direction with a most peculiar expression on its face - it looked (from a human perspective) almost unnerved. I have attempted to capture this facial expression in my photo below. Note also the uncertainty conveyed by that hyaena's ear position as well as the look in its eye. It is important to note that this hyaena didn't seem interested by us watching it, so I don't believe it was our presence that had such an affect on its behaviour.
Now, it wouldn't surprise me for a hyaena to know another hyaena and not want to eat it - or perhaps even to grieve over it! But I'd love to know. It is also interesting that this hyaena has an injury to its face - perhaps it was involved in a skirmish with a lion (a serious hyaena enemy) - maybe that's how the other hyaena actually died... If anyone reading this knows about hyaenas, I'd love to hear an informed hypothesis for this fascinating behaviour.
Why am I not surprised about such behaviour - or the cause of it - from a hyaena? Well, in my opinion, spotted hyaenas (about which this page is mainly concerned, though there are other species, see later) are extremely interesting and highly misunderstood creatures. They are probably my favourite African animal (alongside cheetahs). So I've put some extra information here (compared to the other pages on this site) in the hope of countering their poor image.
Contrary to what you'd expect, the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) is more closely related to the mongoose and meerkat - or in fact more closely related to the cat family than the dog family (though there is some debate about this). In fact, the hyaenidae family consists of four living species: the striped hyaena, brown hyaena, spotted hyaena and the aardwolf. However, it is the spotted hyaena, sometimes called the "laughing hyaena", or "Fisi" in Kiswahili, that I will be discussing here. I also prefer to use the dipthong (as in the "æ" in "hyæna") when naming this species, because, given the family name "hyænidae", it is more correct. However, you will also see the name written "hyena", especially in more general texts.
Hyaenas form what is probably one of the most complex hierarchical social groups to be found in nature and are much studied as a result. And, as is usual amongst mammals that form complex social structures, hyaenas are highly intelligent - so much so that some literature likens their intellect to that of apes. In fact, some studies have shown that hyaenas have the ability to learn and co-operate faster than chimps in order to obtain a food reward, even teaching unskilled clan members their tricks! I can't help but think that one can see this intelligence in the eyes of the hyaena shown in my photo above.
The name for a hyaena social group is a clan. Females are dominant in spotted hyaena society, and a clan can number up to 100, if the environment permits it. The clan consists of a number of matrilines, each of which consists of a different family of females. A female stays with her clan for life, so a clan may consist of several very ancient lines of families. Each matriline has a fixed status within the clan - young females inherit this position from their mothers so it remains fixed down the generations. The higher the status of the matriline that a hyaena is from, the better the choice she gets for food and mates. There is such a thing as "rich pickings" in hyaena society. In that way, they aren't any different from us really, are they?!
Hyaenas live in dens, most usually those which have been abandoned by other creatures such as jackals and warthogs. Because they are so social, they will actually look after another mother's cubs if, say, she is out hunting. So you actually get baby-sitting hyaenas! This is rather useful since hyaenas can reproduce at any time of year and cubs need milk for between 12 and 16 months and don't reach sexual maturity until around age 3. In captivity, hyaenas are reported to live to a maximum of 25 years, usually nearer 12.
Being highly social, hyaenas have a large range of vocalizations and body language. As far as vocalisations go, the most famous are the "giggle" - aka "laughing hyena" - and the "whoop". The giggle isn't what it seems. A Hyaena uses it (and variations of it) to signal fear and submission in a situation such as when it is being threatened by a more dominant hyaena or a lion (in fact it is said that the human smile and laugh originated as a submissive signal). So you will often hear a giggle from an inferior hyaena (a male or lesser matriline hyaena) to a superior one when debating over food - it is kind of a pacifying vocalization, a bit like when we laugh nervously. The "whoop" of a Hyaena is their long-distance communication sound and is that eerie call that you will hear at night when you are trying to sleep!
Another source of hyaena communication is their very complex marking system - they have two anal scent glands! One produces a white paste which the hyaena deposits on grass stems - humans can even smell it. This activity is called "pasting" and is an important territory-marking activity. Hyaenas usually back this up by scratching the ground which adds to the scenting because of their interdigital glands that also produce a scent. The other anal gland produces a darker paste that (from what I can gather) is ancilliary to the white paste, but nevertheless you can spot a hyaena spoor (trail) by the light and dark close-together lines that the pasting activity forms on grass/twig stems.
Hyaenas are not the scavengers that people think - they are in fact highly organised and strategic hunters and, contrary to popular belief, usually kill for themselves such animals as Wildebeest, Zebra and even sometimes Buffalo. In fact very often it is the lions that are scavengers, not the hyaenas - as lions will frequently steal hyena kills - or even kill hyenas! However, like any animal, hyenaas won't waste energy hunting if they don't need to - so they will often lie in wait below a tree in which a leopard is eating its kill, or a safe distance from feeding lions, in order to clean up afterwards. And, since hyaenas have such powerful, bone-crushing jaws they can eat the things that the lions and leopards can't - bones - even large wildebeest femur bones! In fact, they obtain much of their nutrition from bone marrow. Bone calcium is the reason that hyaena faeces tends to be white in colour.
The final thing I will say about hyaenas concerns the strange genitalia of the females! A female hyaena has an enlarged clitoris - called a "pseudo-penis" - and in fact it does look remarkably like a rather strange-looking, extended penis! Females give birth, copulate and urinate through these protruding genitalia! This isn't such a good thing because the females suffer injuries to this organ when giving birth. No one knows why female hyaena genitalia have evolved in this way. However, female hyaenas have been found to have unusually high levels of testosterone - increasingly so the higher up their status in the clan - so perhaps that they have such genitalia is connected to that high testosterone level!
Why do spotted hyaenas have such a poor image? Because of their ability to eat and digest all parts of a carcass, their scavenging behaviour, and particularly the fact they have been known to scavenge from graves and take human babies! All of this has tended towards them becoming part of African folklore that speaks of hyaenas calling victims by name and that they are what witches and sourcerers ride! So if you were one of those that don't like this species, I hope you might feel a little more friendly towards them having read these paragraphs! They are, after all, just trying to eek out a living in the same way that we do. It's just that some of their culture clashes with ours!
Below are some excellent resources about hyaenas: