“An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity but great fulfilment.” – David Attenborough
The spotted hyena is arguably the most successful large carnivore in Africa because it is both a proficient hunter and scavenger, displaying resourcefulness and stamina in its foraging pursuits. It is the only mammal that can digest bone, which it crushes in its powerful jaws and thereby extracts calcium and protein unavailable to other animals.
Hyenas have exceptional senses with sight (especially night vision), smell and hearing all being excellent. A hyenas olfactory capabilities are so remarkable that they can follow scent trails that are already three days old.
Hyenas have massive forequarters modified for carrying heavy carcasses. The large head and neck are well equipped, with muscles to actuate the kind of crushing and tearing jaw actions that hyenas use. The enlarged forequarters give the hyena a sloped appearance and the front feet are larger than the hind to accommodate the extra forward weight. The body structure is also an adaption to the loping energy-efficient gait used by hyenas when they forage.
Unlike other carnivores, the cubs are born with their eyes open, canines fully intact and aggressive tendencies. A female usually gives birth to twins. If two female cubs are born they start to battle for dominance immediately and one cub usually dies.
Hyenas live in clans dominated by the larger, more aggressive females. Each clan defends a territory of about 130 square kilometers. Females have a rank hierarchy amongst themselves and all females (and their female cubs) are dominant over all males. Female cubs inherit their moms status and they form coalitions in which they operate (i.e. hunt together). These coalitions, especially if lower ranked, will sometimes break away to form new clans where their status is improved. Young males leave the clan at 2 years of age to be inducted into a new clan, which will give them a slightly elevated status as they are genetically vigorous. They will work hard to gain social favour in order to mate with females, but also sometimes will simply remain alone.
The focus of a hyena clan centres on a communal den (usually an old aardvark hole with a few entrances for easy access) where all the females keep their young. Unlike lions they do not mutually suckle each other’s young but like lions, they come and go as they please. Adults seldom go inside the den, they remain at the entrance where they suckle their young on the richest milk of any terrestrial mammal. The cubs stay in their den being fed on only milk for a protracted time and are weaned at 14-18 months old. The females strategy is to keep their young safe by leaving them at the den and thus out of harms way for as long as possible. By letting the young suckle, rather than taking meat back to the den they further avoid the attention of competitors like lions.
Giving birth is no easy task for a hyena mother. The birth canal traverses the pseudo-penis and is twice as long as in other mammals. The umbilical cord disconnects from the placenta while the cub is still inside the birth canal, the opening of which is far smaller than the cubs head. As a result first-time mothers often produce stillborn cubs due to oxygen starvation. Due to the uro-genital opening splitting, subsequent births are a little easier.
Words & pictures by Jamie Sangster