The spotted hyena (scientific name: Crocuta crocuta), also known as the laughing hyena, is a hyena species native to sub-Saharan Africa. It is the sole extant member of the genus Crocuta and is the largest known member of the family Hyaenidae, which contains only three other species: the brown hyena, the aardwolf and the striped hyena.
It differs from these animals in appearance though, with its vaguely bear-like build, its rounded ears, its less prominent mane and its spotted pelt.
The spotted hyena is found in many types of open, dry habitat including semi-desert, savannah, acacia bush, and mountainous forest. It is the most common large carnivore in Africa, thanks to its great adaptability and opportunism when it comes to hunting and feeding. It is also very fast, and can run at speeds of up to 60 km/h.
These animals belong to the order Carnivora, which also contains lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars and leopards. Out of all in this order, the spotted hyena is the most social, with the largest group sizes and most complex social behaviours. They are matriarchal, with females being larger than males, and dominating them.
The spotted hyena is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, and is considered to be pretty abundant across its range. The population of these animals is thought to be between 27,000 and 47,000 individuals.
Despite this, the spotted hyena is experiencing declines outside of protected areas due to habitat loss and poaching.
Spotted Hyena Characteristics
The spotted hyena is the largest member of the family Hyaenidae, with females being larger than males. These animals measure 95 to 165.8 cm (37 to 65 in) in body length, and have a shoulder height of 70 to 91.5 cm (28 to 36 in). Males can weigh between 40.5 kg and 67.6 kg (89 lb and 149 lb), while females weigh between 44.5 kg and 69.2 kg (98 lb and 153 lb).
These animals are strongly built, with a large neck and wide, flat head topped by rounded ears, which gives them a bear-like appearance. Their forequarters are largely more developed than their hindquarters, and their front legs are longer than their back legs, giving their back a sloped appearance.
This means their rump is rounded rather than angular, which prevents attackers coming from behind from getting a firm grip on it.
Their tail is about 30 to 36 cm long and ends in a bushy black tip. They have four digits on each foot with short, non-retractable claws and broad toe pads.
The fur of the spotted hyena varies greatly with age. Their coat is very coarse and wooly. It is usually a sandy, yellowish or gray color with black or dark brown spots on the back and hind quarters.
The spots vary in size, but are commonly 20 mm (0.79 in) in diameter. The spots are darkest in younger animals and can be almost completely absent in very old animals.
One of the most unique features of the spotted hyena is the presence of a pseudo-penis in the female. It is the only mammalian species to lack an external vaginal opening, having a pseudo-penis instead.
The clitoris is enlarged, looks like a penis, and is capable of erection. Females also have a pair of sacs in the genital region which are filled with fibrous tissue. These look much like a scrotum, but are covered with more hair than the male’s scrotum.
Because of this, males and females look extremely similar and one of the only ways to tell them apart is to look at the size of the individuals.
Spotted Hyena Lifespan
The spotted hyena is thought to live for up to 25 years in the wild, and up to 40 years in captivity.
Spotted Hyena Diet
The spotted hyena is the most carnivorous member of the Hyaenidae and is a predator, not a scavenger, unlike the brown and striped species of hyena. The most commonly taken prey by these animals are wildebeest, zebra, antelope, Thomson’s gazelle,
Grant’s gazelle, greater kudu, impala, giraffe, cape buffalo, springbok, gemsbok, bushbuck, suni, gerenuk, Warthog, hare, springhare, ostrich eggs, bat-eared fox, golden jackal, porcupine and puff adder. They will also feed on carcasses of much larger animals, such as African elephants and lions.
Spotted hyenas are one of the top predators in Africa. They usually hunt in groups of 2 to 5 individuals, although zebra are hunted in larger groups. They use their keen sense of sight, hearing and smell to hunt live prey and to detect carrion from afar.
During a hunt, spotted hyenas often run through ungulate herds in order to select an individual to attack. They also often chase their prey long distances at speeds up to 60 km/hr.
Spotted Hyena Behavior
Spotted hyenas can be active both day and night, depending on their needs and whether there are humans around, but they are generally nocturnal. Thanks to their good eyesight and sharp hearing, they can hunt for food when it is dark. This also helps to keep them cool.
Spotted hyenas are the most social of the order Carnivora and live in social groups called clans, which may contain between 3 and 80 members. Larger spotted hyena clans generally occur in prime territory with large prey concentrations.
Spotted hyenas are matriarchal with females dominant to all males, and females remain in their natal clan for their entire lives, while males disperse upon reaching sexual maturity. Cubs take the rank directly below their mothers at birth. So when the matriarch passes away, their youngest female cub will take over as matriarch.
Once a male joins another clan, he enters a dominance queue that the other males respect. As more males enter the queue and older males die, the male will move up through the social rank. Lower ranking males spend a long time developing relationships with females in the clan, following females for periods of days or weeks and eventually gaining favor with the females.
Despite the fact that spotted hyenas are members of large groups, they are only seen in these clans at kills, when defending the territory, or at a communal den. At all other times, they congregate in small groups or are seen alone.
Spotted hyena territory can range from less than 40 km2 to over 1,000 km2. These territories are marked using vocal displays and scent marking. Scent marks are deposited from a secretion of the anal gland and from a secretion of glands on the feet. These animals also use communal latrines to mark territory boundaries.
Territories are usually respected, with members of clans observed giving up on chasing prey when the prey crosses into another clan’s range. Despite this, in times of food shortage, territorial boundaries will be ignored.
Males are more likely to enter another clan’s territory than females are, as they are less attached to their natal group and will leave it when in search of a mate. Hyenas can be accepted into other clans if they are persistent in wandering into a territory.
These animals use both vocalizations and body language to communicate with each other. They have an extensive vocal range and the spotted hyena is often called the laughing hyena thanks to their “giggling”.
Other sounds range from whoops, fast whoops, grunts, groans, lows, yells, growls, soft grunt-laughs, loud grunt-laughs, whines and soft squeals. These sounds can be used for greetings, excitement, impatience, fear and aggression.
Body language includes greeting ceremonies between clan-members, during which two individuals stand parallel to each other and face opposite directions. Both individuals raise their hind legs and lick each other’s anogenital area.
Spotted hyenas may also lower their hindquarters when being attacked, fold their ears and bare their teeth when afraid, and carry their tail forward on their back when excited. Chemical communication is used too in the form of scent marking.
Spotted hyenas are thought to be very intelligent animals. For example, they seem to plan on hunting specific species in advance, using scent marking before setting off to hunt zebras.
They also have been recorded using deceptive behaviour, including giving alarm calls during feeding when no enemies are present, thus frightening off other hyenas and allowing them to temporarily eat in peace.
Similarly, mothers will emit alarm calls when attempting to interrupt attacks on their cubs by other hyenas.
Spotted Hyena Reproduction
Spotted hyenas are polygynous. Members of both sexes may copulate with several mates over the course of several years. Females usually favour younger males born or joined into the clan after they were born.
Males perform a bowing display to females before mating. The male lowers his muzzle to the ground, advances quickly toward the female, bows again, and then paws the ground close behind the female. Because of the dominance of females, males are timid and will retreat immediately if the alpha female shows any aggression.
Spotted hyenas are non-seasonal breeders, although a birth peak does occur during the wet season. Female hyenas are polyestrous, with an estrus period lasting two weeks. Copulation is difficult because of the females pseudo-penis, but it lasts a relatively short time — between 4 and 12 minutes.
Spotted hyenas give birth in dens, which are the focal point of a clan. Dens are used by several females at once, and it is not uncommon to see up to 20 cubs at a single site. These den sites might be used for years, while some clans prefer to use several different dens within a year.
Dens are usually not dug by the spotted hyenas themselves and are abandoned burrows of warthogs, springhares and jackals. They usually have more than a dozen entrances, and are mostly located on flat ground. The tunnels are oval in section, and are wider than they are high.
The gestation period for spotty hyenas is around 110 days and the average litter consists of two cubs. After copulation, males play no part in raising the young. The cubs are born with soft, brownish black hair, and weigh 1.5 kg on average. They are also born with their eyes open and with 6 to 7 mm long canine teeth and 4 mm long incisors.
Cubs will often attack each other shortly after birth. This is particularly apparent in same sexed litters, and can result in the death of the weaker cub. Mothers are very protective of their cubs and will not allow other adults, particularly males, approaching them.
Cubs will nurse from their mother for 12 to 16 months, though they can process solid food as early as three months. Also at around three months, the cubs begin to lose the black coat and develop the spotted, lighter colored coat.
Spotted hyenas each sexual maturity at the age of three years and females are capable of producing a litter every 11 to 21 months.
Although individual spotted hyenas only care for their own young, and males take no part in raising their young, cubs are able to identify relatives as distantly related as great-aunts throughout their lives.
Spotted Hyena Location and Habitat
The spotted hyena’s range once encompassed almost all of Africa and Eurasia. The causes of the species’ extinction in Eurasia are still largely unknown. It is thought that they became extinct from Western Europe loss of lowland habitats favoured by the animals 12,500 years ago.
Nowadays, the spotted hyena is fairly widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, although its distribution is patchy in some places, particularly in West Africa. Mostly, these animals can be found in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Congo, Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.
The spotted hyena resides in many types of open, dry habitat including semi-desert, savanna, acacia bush, and mountainous forest. It is not present in the most extreme desert conditions, tropical rainforests and the top of alpine mountains.
The brown and striped hyena species are more common in desert habitats than the spotted species, but will be found in greater abundance than other hyena species in dense forested habitat. They have also been recorded as high as 4,000 meters in east Africa and Ethiopia.
Spotted Hyena Conservation Status
Spotted hyenas are widespread throughout their range and their global population is estimated to be between 27,000 and 47,000 individuals. Because of this, they are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Despite this, there are concerns for the spotted hyena population, especially in relation to hunting and climate change. Effects on their environment such as drought, desertification, eradication could be causing a decline in this species, and commercial and trophy hunting is also a big threat.
In fact, in some areas where this is no legal protection outside of national parks and reserves, such as in Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, spotted hyenas are severely threatened.
Spotted Hyena Predators and Competitors
Spotted hyenas are very clever predators and therefore do not have many predators of their own. The most common predator of the hyenas are lions, but this is because hyenas and lions compete directly for food and often scavenge each other’s kills. This competition can sometimes lead to altercations which can result in death. Despite this, lions typically ignore spotted hyenas, unless they are on a kill or are being harassed by them. The spotted hyena will also avoid crocodile-infested waters, as they will prey on the hyena if given the opportunity.
Spotted hyenas have other competitors in the wild, too. While cheetahs and leopards usually prey on smaller animals than those hunted by spotted hyenas, hyenas will steal their kills when the opportunity presents itself. Cheetahs are easily intimidated by hyenas, and put up little fight, while male leopards may stand up to hyenas.
Spotted hyenas will also follow packs of African wild dogs in order to steal their kills. Black-backed and side-striped jackals, and African golden wolves will feed alongside hyenas, though they will be chased if they approach too closely.
Where their ranges overlap, spotted hyenas dominate other hyena species. They will often steal other hyenas kills, and may even attack and kill other species.
Spotted Hyena Importance
Spotted hyenas are the most common large predator in Africa and are, therefore, very important in their ecosystem. They help to keep the population of other species in check. They are also important to the tourism industry in Africa, with many people travelling to see these animals on safaris.
While spotted hyenas are not in demand from trophy hunters because they are not viewed as very attractive, they are stilled killed by hunters occasionally and have been used for food and medicine in the past.
Spotted Hyena FAQs
Where do spotted hyenas live?
Spotted hyenas live in sub-Saharan Africa. They mostly reside in savannas, grasslands, woodlands, forest edges, subdeserts, and even mountains. They do not live in extreme climates, such as deserts or tropical rainforests.
How fast can spotted hyenas run?
Spotted hyenas can run pretty fast — up to 60 km/hr over long distances when chasing their prey. However, this is not as fast as lions, cheetahs or gazelles.
How big are spotted hyenas?
Spotted hyenas are the largest member of the family Hyaenidae. They can weigh up to 69.2 kg (153 lb) and measure 165.8 cm (65 in) in length. Females are larger and heavier than males.
Are spotted hyenas dangerous to humans?
Yes! These animals can target humans and there have been several records of hyenas doing this. They are particularly dangerous when protecting their young and territory. The bite force of spotted hyenas is 1100 PSI, which is powerful enough to shatter bones. They have even been known to consume humans after killing them.