Spotted Hyena are the Ultimate Opportunists

Blog post article spotted hyena

Few animals are as unfairly maligned and as intrinsically fascinating as the spotted hyena. They are commonly reviled as lowly scavengers, but in fact they are highly successful predators and are the most abundant large carnivore in Africa today. Disney’s, “The Lion King” portrayal of hyenas as cackling cowards, scavenging from the majestic lion, does the hyena a grave injustice.

The hyena family, of which the spotted is one of four living species, shows a remarkable variation in behavior and ecology. From the small Aardwolf with it’s tiny peg like teeth to the phenomenal bone crushing powers in the jaws of the spotted and brown hyenas. These notoriously strong jaws combined with the animal’s large size and a digestive system capable of digesting even bones and teeth; allow the hyenas to fully exploit the remains of large vertebrates more efficiently than any other carnivore.

Spotted hyenas are formidable predators who hunt cooperatively as well as singly; in fact lions scavenge more kills, more often than hyenas. The legendary interaction with other predators, for instance the “ no love lost “ competition between lions and hyenas is not always what it seems .It is only since researchers have been studying hyenas that this age old myth has been dispelled. What this research shows us, is that hyenas tend to do more of the hunting, only to have the kills appropriated by the bigger stronger lions. When typically, we humans arrive on the scene the hyenas are not trying to steal, they are merely trying to retrieve their kill.

Few animals feature as strongly in African folk law as the hyena. Tales of its exploits and cunning are told and retold around traditional cooking fires. Hyenas as pets are the preferred choice of the so-called witches and evil spirits, who ride on their backs while dispensing their evil deeds. Even in this day and age hyenas are still seen to have this mystical connection with evil forces and in the city of Harar in Eastern Ethiopia witchdoctors feed hyenas from their mouths to appease the spirits.

To survive as an opportunist one has to be cunning and sly in order to exploit every opportunity that presents it’s self. This survival technique may be the catalyst for the bad reputation that hangs around the neck of present day hyenas. In a 13th-century bestiary the hyenas are classified as “dirty brutes” for doing something they were designed to do by the very precise process of evolution; locating carrion. Only the carrion that some hyenas located in the 13th-century happened to be human remains that were not interned correctly. In Africa, until fairly recently it was not uncommon amongst certain tribes to put out their dead as an offering to the hyena.

The spotted hyena has a complex social system rivaling that of the primates and centers on the female of the species, who is more aggressive, larger than the male and is strongly the dominant sex. The genital organs of the female are highly masculine in form and structure. This masculinization may be related to another unique aspect of hyena reproduction: spotted hyena cubs are precocial, born with their eyes open and teeth fully erupted. Minutes after birth, violent fighting between cub’s takes place, so fiercely that the older cub may kill its sibling.

Since the time of Aristotle, natural historians and scientists have been challenged to explain the extraordinary genitalia of the hyena. At times the spotted hyena had been thought to be a hermaphrodite, either possessing the organs of both sexes or able to change from male to female and back. Laboratory studies on the hormonal basis of hyena masculinization suggest that prenatal androgen exposure is responsible for both the aggressive nature of females, and their male like anatomy. Females dominate over males in nearly all-social situations, such that even the lowest ranking female is able to displace the highest-ranking adult male.

The hyena’s social organization is also notable for its flexibility, varying according to habitat type and the abundance and dispersion of the main food source. They reside in clans of up to 50 adult members and house the cubs in communal dens, which form the social center for the clan. Competition at a kill site is expressed in the speed at which they eat, and it is important to each individual to consume as much as it can as quickly as possible. Often there is nothing left over to take back to the cub’s except for difficult-to- eat skin and bones. This is why females allow the cubs to suckle hungrily on milk that contains the highest energy levels of any terrestrial mammal, until they are well over a year old.

The Spotted Hyena, or as I have aptly named them here, Ultimate Opportunist, has evolved over time to exploit a particular niche, a position that it fills very effectively. The evolutionary “quirks” as we see them have important social connotations for the species and each has a very important role to play in the survival of the species. Evolution favors the strong and this is no more apparent than in spotted hyena.


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