The Spotted Hyena
(a.k.a. Laughing Hyena)
Dog-like in appearance, the spotted hyena is easily identified by its spotted coat, short mane and unique gait. They are classified in their own family, Hyaenidae, along with three other species, including the brown hyena, striped hyena and Aardwolf. Their closest biological relatives are members of the Herpestidae family, consisting of mongooses and meerkats.
The hyena’s front legs are longer than their back legs, similar to a bear. There are several differences between the spotted hyena and other types of hyenas. The female spotted hyena is larger than her male counterparts. While in the womb, males and females are both exposed to testosterone from the mother. This is very unusual, as in most species, sex-related hormones are delivered to creatures from their own bodies, as their sexual organs develop. As they age, the female spotted hyenas' testosterone level goes down, but they are still more aggressive than the males. Some scientists believe that other hormones, such as androstenedione, a precursor hormone that can develop into either estrogen or testosterone, also play a part in the female spotted hyena's dominant behavior. This strange hormonal balance makes the spotted hyena a very interesting subject for endocrinologists and biologists. In other species of hyena the male is larger than the female, and dominant.
- Weight 90 – 190 lbs
- Females weigh about 3 lbs more than males (Spotted Hyenas)
- Rounded ears (only spotted hyena has round ears)
- Head and body size range 34” – 59” long
- Height 2 – 3 feet tall
- Tail approx. 10” to 14” long
- Two pairs of legs with paws (5 pads per paw)
- Powerful jaws
- Female sexual organs appear masculinized, leading many people in the past to the mistaken belief that they were hermaphrodites.
The spotted hyena lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Their habitat includes Savannah, bushland and desert areas.
The spotted hyena is considered to be near the same level as some primates in terms of their social intelligence. Hyenas have excellent night vision and are mostly nocturnal. They do their hunting at night and they sleep or spend time near their den during the daytime. They are organized into a matriarchal social structure of related individuals called clans. The is one alpha female who leads the clan. Hyenas mark their territory by secreting a oily substance from their anal glands. They also scratch the ground with their paws to mark their territories. Areas far from the den are used as “latrines”, another way the clan marks the boundary of its territory.
At top speeds of 41 miles per hour, the hyena is a strong runner. They have good stamina and often use a tag team approach as they rotate in and out while chasing down prey.
Males will not consume prey until females have had their fill. The most dominant male will wait for the most junior female to eat, without challenging her.
The gestation period for a spotted hyena is between 90 to 110 days. The females usually have litters of twins, born with their eyes open and with emergent teeth, usually at the mouth of burrows too small for the mother to enter. The small size of the burrow protects the young from lions and other predators. The female hyena will call the cubs to come to the mouth of the burrow to nurse. The dominant cub will usually kill the other cub, especially if they are the same sex, not through outright killing, but by intimidating it so much that it will not dare to come to the mouth of the burrow to nurse. The less dominant cub will then die of starvation. Sometimes the mothers will deposit each cub at a different burrow, thus ensuring a better chance of survival for each.
The cubs are black to dark brown in color and their coat lightens as they get older. They are brought to a central den eventually though less dominant females may keep their cubs in dens away from the communal den. The females nurse the cubs for about 12 to 18 months, a long time for carnivores. While the cubs may start feeding on meat and other meals at the age of five months, they continue to nurse until they are weaned at about one year of age. The hyenas do not bring back food for their young or regurgitate food for them, so the nursing is necessary to provide the developing cubs with enough food and nutrition until they can sustain themselves by hunting and scavenging. While the cubs are developing during their first year of life, they remain at the den or nearby. There is always an adult hyena nearby, watching the younger hyenas.
The male hyenas do not participate at all in rearing the young.
In captivity, hyenas have lived up to 40 years. In the wild their lifespan is 20 to 25 years.
Hyenas are omnivores that hunt and scavenge. Hyenas are well-known for their powerful jaws, sharp teeth and bone crushing abilities. With a pressure of 800 kg, a hyena's jaws are more powerful than a lion’s or a tiger’s. They consume all of the body parts of their prey including skin, teeth and bones. Even the hair, hoofs and horns are consumed and later regurgitated in the form of pellets. Spotted hyenas are not usually scavengers, unlike other hyenas. They hunt and kill their prey. Spotted hyenas prey mostly on hoofed animals. Very infrequently they will consume vegetation, crops and animal droppings of predators near a kill. They are good pack-hunters and they work together in groups called clans. They have been known to steal bits of a lion’s kill. Their bold behavior has led them at times, to feed right next to lions, stealing bites of their most recent prey, though mostly they will wait for the lions to finish before approaching the kill. Spotted hyenas will also follow African wild dogs, cheetahs and leopards, hoping to appropriate their meal.
The hearty, spotted hyena can go up to several days without water. They can also eat up to 1/3 of their own body weight in one feeding.
The hyena has a very distinct call earning them the nickname “laughing hyenas.” They laugh, howl and wail. The laughter call can be heard for several miles and it is used to alert other clan members that they found food.
Humans, other hyenas, lions and hunting dogs. Spotted hyenas have a particularly contentious relationship with lions. Lions have been known to chase packs of hyenas out of their hunting grounds, and hyenas will do the same, particularly if there are not many males in a lion pride.
Interesting Facts About the Spotted Hyena
- In the past, some tribes in Africa would leave their dead outside their villages for consumption by hyenas
- Female spotted hyenas are larger than males
- Hyenas are not related to dogs, but closer to the cat species
- In ancient Egypt hyenas were raised and bred as a food source
- Hyenas consume all body parts of their prey, regurgitating only the hair, hooves and horns in the form of pellets.
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