Hyenas are not the ‘Underdogs’ of Wild

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When asked what my favorite animal is, my answer is always the spotted hyena. My response is often met with bewilderment and confusion. Why the spotted hyena when there are so many magnificent and beautiful wild animals to choose from? When out on a game drive or walking in the bush, I always get incredibly excited when we encounter spotted hyena. There is nothing I love more than lying in my tent in our camp at Makuleke and being lulled to sleep by the sounds of the hyenas whooping and calling to each other in the night.

Spotted Hyena (c) Ben Coley

Can I blame people for not appreciating just how amazing these animals truly are? Not at all. For generations, hyenas have been vilified, regarded as ugly, skulking scavengers and have been the subject of many myths and superstitions. For instance, in European folklore, hyenas have been linked with sexual perversion. In Africa, it was thought that hyenas are witches in disguise. In books and films, they have also been cast as the villains of the story. With all this negative publicity it’s not surprising that these animals are depicted as the ‘underdogs’ of the animal kingdom and that some people question why they should even exist at all.

In nature, every animal has their own niche. Whilst they do form part of nature’s cleanup crew, a cowardly scavenger they are not. Hyenas have one of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom and an adults bite pressure can reach 800 lbs. per inch; perfect for crushing bones and disposing of a carcass. They have the perfect love-hate relationship with other predators. If they have the advantage they can drive other predators like lions away from their kill and to be fair if the lions have the advantage they will happily steal a kill from hyenas. Believe it or not, they are also incredible hunters relying on speed, stamina and teamwork to catch their prey which includes wildebeest and antelope. It has been estimated that they kill between 50-75% of their food, not bad for an animal that is perceived to live off carcasses.

Let’s explain why some call hyenas’ hermaphrodites. In hyena society the female rules and she is significantly bigger than the male. Their large clans form complex social structures so even the lowest ranking female is higher than the highest-ranking male. Females dominate and have more testosterone than males which results in females growing a pseudo-penis, which they use for everything from urinating, to giving birth. This makes it very difficult to tell the difference between males and females, resulting in centuries of confusion.

If that doesn’t impress you…

Effective communication between any species is essential to survival and hyenas are no exception. To me, their calls are one of the most iconic sounds of the African night. They have at least 14 distinct calls that include laughing, grunting and whooping which means that they have one of the most complex vocal systems at in the mammal kingdom.  The first time you hear them calling in the night you might think that they sound a little bit creepy but as you listen you will notice one hyena call might be answered by several others all from different locations and distances. When you hear them calling try and picture it as a complex hyena information super highway.

Hyenas have a symbiotic relationship with other animals.  Their very existence benefits other animals around them within a harmonious ecosystem. For example, hyena scat is also very high in calcium and tortoises will feed on it so that they can absorb this nutritious calcium which is vital for strengthening their shells.  Also if it wasn’t for hyena’s, diseases caused by rotting carcasses would be rampant.

They may not be as majestic as a lion or as striking as a leopard but they do have their own unique beauty. Their cubs like all baby animals are incredibly cute fur balls but like all baby’s they grow up. Yes, they look a bit weird when they get older but if you look at them closely you will see all manner of scars – proof of battles won and lost, proof that they are born survivors.

Baby hyena (c) Lex Hes

They play a vital role in the ecosystem and are a perfectly adapted species of the African plains. Next time you see or hear them, stop and listen to the marvel at these magnificent creatures.


About the Author:
Emma Summers

Emma Summers

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