Little Known Facts About Hyenas

Fierce, cunning, and notoriously known for their eerie laughter, hyenas have often been misunderstood and misrepresented in popular media. However, these fascinating creatures have much more to them than meets the eye.

Below are ten captivating facts about hyenas that highlight their unique characteristics, complex behaviors, and the vital role they play in their ecosystems.

They’re Not Dogs, Nor Cats

Hyenas are part of the animal kingdom’s order Carnivora, which includes both dogs (Canidae) and cats (Felidae), but hyenas are part of their own separate family called Hyaenidae. This classification is based on a range of factors, including genetics, evolutionary history, morphology, and behavior.

Genetically and evolutionarily, hyenas share a more recent common ancestor with cats. The lineage that led to hyenas split from the Feliformia suborder (cat-like carnivores) about 25 million years ago. This suborder includes cats, mongooses, civets, and similar species. This is considerably after the divergence of Caniformia, the suborder that includes dogs.

Physically, while hyenas do look more dog-like due to their general body shape and some behavioral traits, they have unique characteristics that distinguish them from both dogs and cats. For example, they have a unique dentition and skull structure, more robust and adapted to their scavenging and bone-crushing dietary habits. Their digestive system is also unique among carnivores in its ability to digest and derive nutrients from bones.

Female Hyenas Rule the Roost

The dominance of females in hyena societies, specifically in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), is a fascinating deviation from the norm observed in many other mammal species. Female spotted hyenas are larger, more aggressive, and socially dominant over males, effectively ruling the roost.

Female spotted hyenas are on average about 10% larger than males. They also have higher levels of aggression-associated hormones such as androstenedione and testosterone. This gives them a physical and behavioral edge over the males.

Spotted hyena females are also believed to pass on high-ranking status to their offspring, making status in these societies inherited rather than earned. This matrilineal inheritance ensures the females remain dominant from one generation to the next.

Their Laughter Serves a Purpose

The iconic “laugh” of the hyena, particularly the spotted hyena, is a unique vocalization that’s often associated with these creatures, but its purpose extends far beyond amusement. Also known as “giggling”, this sound is a complex form of communication used by hyenas in specific social contexts.

The laugh can signal a hyena’s social status within its clan. Lower-ranking individuals often produce more giggle vocalizations than their higher-ranking counterparts, especially during competitive feeding sessions.

Hyenas often laugh during feeding time, especially when there is a struggle for food or when a hyena is being chased off by another. The giggle may serve to alert other members of the clan about the food source, potentially drawing more hyenas to the site and increasing the giggler’s chances of getting a share.

Hyenas are Expert Hunters

While hyenas have often been stereotyped as mere scavengers, they are, in fact, highly skilled and efficient predators. Their hunting prowess can be attributed to their physical adaptations, strategic hunting tactics, and social structures.

Hyenas, particularly spotted hyenas, are built for endurance. Their forelegs are longer than their hind legs, giving them a sloping appearance but also providing stamina for long pursuits. They are capable of maintaining speeds up to 37 mph for several miles, allowing them to exhaust their prey. Their powerful jaws and robust digestive system can crush bones and consume parts of their prey that other predators may leave behind.

Hyenas are social animals, and they use this to their advantage when hunting. They often hunt in groups, which allows them to take down larger prey like wildebeest or buffalo. Their group hunting tactics often involve encircling the prey or chasing it into a corner.

Hyenas have Incredible Digestive Systems

Hyenas, particularly the spotted hyenas, possess one of the most powerful and efficient digestive systems in the animal kingdom. This impressive digestive system allows them to consume and derive nutrients from parts of their prey that many predators can’t.

Hyenas have a formidable jaw pressure, allowing them to crush and consume large bones. Their teeth are specially adapted for gnawing and breaking down tough materials. The premolars and molars at the back of the jaw (carnassials) are particularly effective for slicing and grinding.

Once the food (including bones, hooves, and even teeth of their prey) reaches the stomach, it’s broken down by highly concentrated hydrochloric acid. This acid is strong enough to dissolve large chunks of bone, a capability few other animals possess.

Hyenas are Speedy Runners

Spotted hyenas have a distinctive body structure with a sloping back, resulting from the forelegs being longer than the hind legs. This body design, along with their powerful shoulders and neck muscles, gives them a steady, loping gait that’s energy-efficient over long distances.

They have large hearts relative to their body size, which supports better circulation and oxygen supply during long chases. They are designed more for endurance than for high speed, allowing them to pursue prey over long distances without tiring quickly.

While they may not be the fastest animals on the savannah, spotted hyenas can reach speeds up to 37 mph. Although this is slower than speed-champion predators like cheetahs, the hyenas’ advantage lies in their ability to maintain this speed for miles, often tiring out their prey.

Hyenas Have a Pseudopenis

Female spotted hyenas are noted for their unique genital anatomy. They have what is commonly referred to as a pseudo-penis or a pseudophallus. This structure is an elongated clitoris that closely resembles the male hyena’s penis in size, shape, and erection capability, leading to the term “pseudo-penis.”

Unlike a typical clitoris, the pseudo-penis of a female hyena is capable of erection and is large—nearly the same size as the male’s penis. This structure is accompanied by a pseudo-scrotum, a pair of fatty pads that resemble the male’s scrotum.

The pseudo-penis plays a role in hyena social rituals as well. For instance, hyenas often greet each other by sniffing and licking each other’s genitals, and both males and females engage in ‘erection displays’ as a show of submission or in times of excitement.

Hyenas Practise Communal Care

ommunal care, also known as alloparenting or cooperative breeding, is when individuals other than the biological parents participate in the care of offspring. While this practice is not widespread in all species of hyenas, the spotted hyena does exhibit some level of communal care.

Spotted hyenas often establish communal dens where multiple females will rear their cubs. These dens provide a secure environment for the young hyenas, ensuring protection from predators.

While it’s less common for spotted hyenas to share nursing responsibilities (as they can only nurse their own young due to the anatomical challenges presented by the pseudo-penis), they do share other duties. For example, adult hyenas will collectively defend the den from threats, ensuring the safety of all cubs in the den, not just their own.

They Use Dirt as a Tool

Hyenas have been observed using dirt and dust in strategic ways during hunts. For instance, they can kick up dust to confuse or startle their prey, providing an advantage during the chase.

They also engage in dust or dirt bathing. By rolling around in the dirt, hyenas can help remove parasites from their fur and skin. The abrasive action of the dust can dislodge ticks and fleas, and the dust itself can absorb excess oils and help clean the fur.

On hot days, hyenas may dig into the cooler layers of dirt or sand to create a comfortable spot to lie down. This digging behavior can help them stay cool in the high temperatures of their environments.

While hyenas may not use tools in the same way as some primates or bird species, their intelligent use of their environment, including dirt, demonstrates their behavioral flexibility and cognitive skills.

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