5 Things You Might Not Know About Hyenas

By Kyra Tarr on December 7, 2023

Hyenas don’t have the best rap in the court of public opinion. When you think about them, you’re probably picturing some rendition of Shenzi, Banzai and Ed from ‘The Lion King’, cackling as they plot Simba’s demise.

As yourself: Why have hyenas been personified with such villainous qualities?

As is often the case, humans tend to judge animals according to our own parameters of desirable or undesirable behaviour.

In animal documentaries, scavengers (even partial scavengers like hyenas) are pitted against other carnivores, making them look like prize mooches. Perhaps you, yourself, have had encounters with hyenas in camp, trying to pry your fridge open with their incredibly powerful jaws. Combined with their “laugh-like” vocalisations, hyenas fall into the perfect “villain” category, but to believe this is to misunderstand the essential role they play in the African ecosystem, preventing the spread of sickness and disease by clearing away carcasses.

In nature, there is no “bad” or “good”, there is simply the fight to survive, and it’s in this area where hyenas shine.

Let’s see if we can flip the script on hyenas with these five facts you might not know about them!

5 Fun Facts About Hyenas

1. Women Take Charge

There are three hyena species: Spotted, brown and striped. While on safari at Tuningi, you’re most-likely to see spotted hyenas – the most common of the three, and also the largest.

In spotted hyena clans, females tend to be bigger than their male counterparts, giving them natural dominance in the social structure. In hyena clans, dominance means earlier access to food and taking your pick of mate.

Brown and striped hyena clans are male-dominated, but all hyena females are known for being excellent mothers. Across the species, females will band together and collectively nurse and protect the clan’s cubs.

2. They Can Hunt

Another fun fact about hyenas is that they can hunt.

Hyenas sloped backs (due to their shorter hind legs) actually make them excellent endurance runners, more than capable of bringing down a wildebeest or buffalo after running it into exhaustion.

Contrary to popular belief, there have been more reports of lions stealing hyena kills than the other way around! Hyenas actually hunt 66-90% of what they eat.

It just goes to show – we should constantly be questioning our perceptions.

3. They Are Not Related To Dogs

Though their faces may strongly resemble that of domestic alsatians or wild dogs, hyenas are not canines.

In fact, they are more closely-related to mongooses, meerkats and other cat-like mammals, though they don’t belong to the feline family either.

They are, in every sense of the word, truly unique animals that belong to a family all their own: Hyaenidae.

It may come as a shock that apart from the three hyena species mentioned above, the fourth and final member of the Hyaenadae family is the aardwolf! Stranger things, right?

4. An Intelligent Species

Before conducting her carnivore intelligence test, animal psychologist Dr Sarah Benson-Amram from the University of Wyoming (U.S.A.) hypothesised that carnivores with more complex social lives would rank higher in solving a specially adapted puzzle box.

(These were metal boxes that the animals had to open by sliding a bolt, enabling them to get at the meat inside.)

Hyenas ranked very well – with a 15% success rate in the wild and an 80% success rate in captivity.

Sadly, this hypothesis didn’t pan out (with bears and raccoons topping the list), but hyenas proved themselves to be highly intelligent regardless.

They Have Complex Social Lives

Compared to wild dogs or big cats, hyenas are long-lived animals capable of reaching their 20s in the wild.

They live in large clans that can number up to 130 individuals! With that many hyenas running around, it’s imperative to establish some order, and hyenas live incredibly complex social lives. That said – they don’t stick together all the time. Think of a clan more like individuals who associate with one another, but don’t live in the same “house”. This type of association is called “fusion-fission” among scientists.

In clans it’s all about ranking, with powerful females near the top and their cubs falling directly below them – even ranking higher than migratory males from other clans. Clans mostly consist of related females and follow a linear hierarchical structure.

When a dominant female dies, a power vacuum ensues, and new boundaries have to be set.

Now that you know a few more fun facts about hyenas, take this opportunity to do some of your own research on these intelligent, socially complex animals.

Who knows? Perhaps, in time, we might together change the narrative surrounding these incredible carnivores.

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