Spotted hyena a misunderstood creature
The Spotted hyena is sadly despised by many. It is easy to grasp why as it is not an animal with the best looks or reputation. The reputation is mostly due to a norm that has been shown in documentaries as them being the adversary to the King of the Jungle, the noble Lion. The Spotted hyena are thugs aggressively stealing kills and portrayed as skulking scavengers.
Let us be frank and rightly point out that the documentaries of the past have not done any good for this complex creature. Neither have Disney and the Lion King.
Where does the Spotted hyena fit in
We begin with classifying the Spotted hyena to better understand where it fits in. Many looks at them and say they must belong among the dogs as they look and hunt like dogs. That is not true. They are in the order of carnivora but resides among the Feliformia, i.e. “cat-like carnivores.” So, they are more closely related to cats than dogs and their closest relative are the mongoose family.
There are only four members in the Hyaenidae family.
Aardwolf, Brown hyena, Spotted hyena and Striped hyena.
A society ruled by females
A Spotted hyena clan is ruled by a matriarch, a lead female. She is often the biggest member of the clan with a high testosterone level. In the clan you will have a clear ranking order among the members. Females dominate males and even lower ranked females tend to being dominate over higher ranked males. It is a complex social structure and there certainly are aggression shown inside the clan when rank is pulled. A clan can consist of up to 80 members in parts of Africa.
A Spotted hyena clan is more unified than a wolf pack, but not as closely knit as a Painted wolf pack. The clan is a fission-fusion society and changes over time. Many times, you will find clan members foraging themselves or in small groups.
The offspring automatically receive the same rank as their mother. Females tend to stay in their natal clan while males disperse to spread the gene pool.
The social life of the Spotted hyena revolves around the communal den site. Some clans have the same den site for years while other move regularly.
A den can have several entrances and they seldom dig their own den. They prefer to take-over abandoned burrows of jackals, warthogs or springhares. Inside the den you have a tunnel system that the cubs dig and where they stay when there is no adult around. Outside the den entrance there often is bare ground as the females tend to lie there resting and nursing the cubs.
Video: Communal den site in Maasai Mara 2019
Several females often use the same den site and it is not uncommon to find up to 20 cubs at one site. Low ranking females often give birth at a private birth den to have better access to their cubs. They want to ensure that they are acquainted with their cubs before introducing them to the clan. Higher ranked females can do the same or give birth at the communal den.
A complex society
The clan complexity is slowly starting to be unwrapped by science as the Spotted hyena nowadays is thought of as an intelligent mammal worth studying. The group size, competition and cooperation inside the clan is remarkably like the one you find among the Old-World monkeys.
They recognize individuals using different senses and use this knowledge during social decision making. Dominance is not correlated with size or aggression, but more with your network of allies.
You will find coalitions within the clan. Lower ranked members trying to gain rank with the correct social network. There are records of matriarchs being overthrown due to coalitions formed of lower ranked females.
Spotted hyena intelligence
A complex social structure among mammals often corresponds to intelligence. It is not fair to compare human intelligence to animals as they revolve around different aspects. Still studies have shown that the Spotted hyena outperform the Chimpanzee when it comes to cooperative problem solving. The test was pulling ropes in unison to get a food reward.
The Spotted hyena quickly learnt without prior training and more experienced clan members helped inexperienced to solve the problem. This is a stark contrast to our relatives the primates who need extensive training to cooperate between individuals.
The Spotted hyena a cunning hunter
Many thinks of the Spotted hyena as a scavenger, but they are a cunning predator. They certainly take over kills, as all big predators tend to do. Why not let someone else waste energy for you?
In certain parts they forage more while they actively hunt more in other. They do not seem to have a preferred prey species but tend to stay clear of African buffalo and Giraffe. Elephant, Rhino and Hippo is neither prey species for them. Still they will not pass the opportunity to eat a carcass of either.
They are highly effective and hunt by stamina. On the great plains of East Africa, you can witness Spotted hyenas walking straight into herds of ungulates before they single-out an individual and start the chase. This is a cunning and deceptive strategy that often lead to a case for several kilometre before the prey succumb to overheating, fatigue.
They are the long-distance runner among the predators of Africa. It is also one of the reason why they are highly successful when it comes to hunting.
A niche in evolution
The Spotted hyena is an omnivore as their diet also consist of fruits and vegetables. The diet mainly consists of meat and that is why many claim them to be a carnivore.
Many predators leave up to 40% of a kill. The Spotted hyena eats virtually everything except the rumen content and the horn of the biggest antelopes. They can get nourishment from old bones that have been left for months.
Some claim them to be the predator that utilizes their prey the most efficiently.
Some scientists think our ancestors once competed with the Spotted hyena on the African savannah and that is why we are bipedal. There where no competition for bones during the hot days on the savannah when predators left for shade. To fill this gap our ancestors, needed to walk bipedal. To stand up lessen the impact of the sun and gave a better view of the surroundings. This gave our ancestors a richer diet now with bone marrow included.
This might also be the reason the Spotted hyena has the highest flight distance among African predators as our ancestor competed with them for a specific food source.
Spotted hyena vocalization
The Spotted hyena has an extensive vocal range even considered to be one of the noisiest in Africa. They have 11 recognizable calls, some say 12, ranging from whoop to giggle. Like lions the use calls to establish or maintain contact with members of their clan.
They can probably recognize individuals by their calls.
I hope I have given you a better perspective of the misunderstood Spotted hyena. Next time you come across one then please take time to appreciate this highly intelligent and social animal. They deserve our respect just like their nemesis the lion.