Hyenas are mostly known for their maniacal laugh and roles as villains in famous movies like Lion King. Despite their appearance, they are social animals that play a significant role in the ecosystem. As you browse our list of hyena facts, you will get to know them better.
As one of Africa's top predators, they are skilled and intelligent hunters. They live in clans with up to 80 individuals, led by a dominant female called the matriarch. You might have heard of hyenas laughing. Don't let the sound fool you! As you read about these hyena facts, you'll uncover the truths and the fallacies surrounding these exciting species.
You can also check out other exciting animals that start with the letter H.
Hyenas live throughout Africa, sharing space with other predators like lions. While they scavenge for food, hyenas also exhibit skilled hunting abilities. For example, spotted hyenas hunt gazelles, antelopes, wildebeests, cape buffalo and zebras. Sometimes, they target domestic livestock. Overall, they have a success rate of 74%2.
Hyenas and lions are natural rivals. They compete for resources and territory and hunt prey. As powerful predators, they confront each other to establish their place in the ecosystem. Even though lions usually overpower hyenas, they often call for help from their clans.
Want to know more about the hyena's rival predator? Feed your curiosity with these lion facts.
Another interesting hyena fact is that not all species eat meat. Yes, you heard it right. Not all hyenas are carnivorous.
Of the four hyena species–spotted hyena, striped hyena, brown hyena, and aardwolf hyena–the aardwolf is smaller and prefers insects, especially termites. This small nocturnal member of the Hyaenidae family breaks away from the meat-eating habits of its larger cousins5.
Aardwolves have adapted to the insect-eating lifestyle, using their long, sticky tongues to collect termites and strong jaws to open their exoskeletons. These adaptations allow them to consume up to 250,000 termites in one night and occupy a different ecological niche than their meat-eating relatives.
The aardwolf is a reminder that appearances can be deceiving in the hyena species. Nature's inhabitants are more diverse than we think.
You might assume hyenas share a close kinship with wild dogs due to their similar appearance. However, they are not related. Hyenas are more closely related to felines, mongooses, and civets. These animals belong to the suborder Feliformia, which differs from the Caniformia suborder.
What sets hyenas apart from dogs and cats? As members of the Hyaenidae family, they have distinctive features. For example, they have evolved specialized teeth that can crush bones and extract marrow, which is not a trait seen in canines. Despite their dog-like appearance, they are, in fact, a separate group of mammals.
Hyenas can crush bones and consume all parts of their prey. Their specialized skull structure and strong jaw muscles generate a bite force of up to 1,100 pounds per square inch, similar to lions and tigers. This bite force allows hyenas to efficiently extract nutrients from their meals and thrive in competitive environments.
Did you know that female spotted hyenas defy the usual expectations of size and dominance? Unlike other animals, the females of these species are larger and more dominant than males. Their size comes from the high testosterone levels in their bodies from birth1. This hormone handles their aggressive behavior and unique physical attributes that challenge traditional notions of male and female hyenas.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the dominant hyena female is its elongated clitoris, also known as a pseudo-penis, which can reach up to 7 inches long. This pseudo-penis closely resembles a male's penis, making it challenging to differentiate between the sexes.
Females also exhibit a pseudo-scrotum formed by the fusion of the labia and filled with fatty tissue.
Further, the spotted hyena is the largest among the hyena species, while brown hyenas are the second largest.
One interesting part of their survival strategy is dealing with high temperatures. To stay cool, spotted hyenas rest in water pools during the hottest hours of the day.
These clever mammals can dissipate excess body heat and maintain a comfortable internal temperature by submerging themselves in these natural reservoirs. But if water is scarce, they seek shelter under bushes or vegetation.
As nocturnal animals, hyenas hunt in the dark. However, they spend their evenings resting and conserving energy for nighttime activities. Despite not being water-loving creatures, hyenas demonstrate impressive adaptability and resourcefulness.
Do you know hippos sleep in the water too? Find out in our hippopotamus facts.
Who runs the world? In the case of the spotted hyena, it's the girls. Hyenas are very social creatures. This hyena observes a social structure with carefully organized daily interactions.
These intelligent animals live in matriarchal clans of up to 80 members. Each Spotted Hyena has a specific role and position within the groups called clans. The dominant alpha female leads the hierarchy with authority and respect6. In this social order, females consistently outrank their male counterparts, creating a linear dominance system.
The social order of spotted hyenas comes through in their feeding habits. Despite their strength, adult male spotted hyenas wait their turn to eat and only consume the leftovers of the dominant females and their offspring.
Another interesting fact about hyenas is their patience and perseverance during mating rituals. Female hyenas hold power in their clans, so males engage in submissive behaviors to impress them3.
This courtship can last long as males strive to build strong bonds with females. Only the most determined and adaptable males get the chance to reproduce, which helps maintain genetic diversity in the clan.
The hyena mating ritual is unique because of the male's careful approach to the female's special genitalia. For successful mating, males must be patient and gentle to avoid being rejected by females, emphasizing the importance of trust and adaptability for male hyenas.
Believe it or not, hyenas are outstanding mothers. A hyena mother can give birth to one or two cubs, and they rank among the most devoted mothers in the animal kingdom. Their dedication to their young (called cubs) is remarkable, exerting tremendous effort to raise them and ensure their best chance at survival.
Hyenas invest more resources per cub than any other land-dwelling carnivore, a testament to their commitment to their offspring's well-being and growth.
It's also quite fascinating how hyena cubs enter the world. They are born ready for life in the wild. Unlike vulnerable feline cubs, hyena cubs come out with open eyes, fully-formed teeth, and strong muscles from birth. They can interact with their surroundings and quickly learn survival skills. However, this is true only for spotted hyena cubs, not the striped and brown hyena.
One of the most valuable hyena facts is their vital role in ecosystems as efficient recyclers. Striped hyenas are primarily scavengers, consuming carcasses and bones left by other predators, breaking them down, and returning nutrients to the soil. This unusual task helps promote plant growth and foster biodiversity by enriching the soil.
In addition, striped hyenas help prevent disease among wildlife and humans. By consuming the remains of dead animals, they limit the spread of infections, like anthrax, which is transmissible through contact with contaminated carcasses. Their clean-up service also prevents the rotting of remains that attract flies and pests, reducing the risk of disease transmission.
Most people often associate hyenas with hysterical laughs. Spotted hyenas, or "laughing hyenas," produce a distinctive vocalization to communicate with others. Contrary to popular belief, the eerie giggle of a laughing hyena is not an expression of joy or pleasure. Rather, it conveys nervousness or submission when encountering higher-ranking clan members.
Apart from the notorious laughter, spotted hyenas produce "whooping" sounds to call their cubs. However, only the spotted hyena aggressively "laughs." The brown hyena, which is the rarest, only produces grunts and growls.
Popular media has often portrayed these large carnivores as dumb. However, this is far from the truth; they are relatively intelligent. In complex societies, hyenas demonstrate advanced social behaviors and follow intricate rules. They cleverly use tactics like distraction and deception for food and mating.
Surprisingly, they can also outperform primates in challenging puzzles, showing their critical and creative thinking skills. From opening lunchboxes to outsmarting humans, the cognitive prowess of hyenas raises questions about their intellectual limits.
Researchers studying hyena intelligence have found surprising parallels with human evolution. Some experiments have shown that spotted hyenas outperform even chimpanzees in collaborative problem-solving tasks, making them potentially more intelligent than some great apes4.
The hyena family faces various conservation challenges. Some adapt and survive, while others have an uncertain future. The IUCN Red List categorizes the brown and striped hyena as "Near Threatened." While the spotted hyena and aardwolf are of "Least Concern."
Habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and dwindling prey populations affect these wild animals' survival. Brown and striped hyenas struggle against the expansion of human settlements, which reduces their habitats and resources.
Frequent encounters between hyenas and humans lead to unfortunate confrontations and threats to livestock. However, despite facing similar challenges, the spotted and aardwolf hyenas maintain stable populations.
Share these interesting hyena facts and spread the love for these misunderstood predators.
Glickman, S. E., Frank, L. G., Pavgi, S., & Licht, P. (1992). Hormonal correlates of 'masculinization' in female spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta). 1. Infancy to sexual maturity. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, 95(2), 451-462.
Holekamp, K. E., & Dloniak, S. M. (2010). Intraspecific variation in the behavioral ecology of a tropical carnivore, the spotted hyena. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 42, 189-229.
East, M. L., & Hofer, H. (2001). Male spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) queue for status in social groups dominated by females. Behavioral Ecology, 12(5), 558-568.
Drea, C. M., & Carter, A. N. (2009). Cooperative problem solving in a social carnivore. Animal Behaviour, 78(4), 967-977.
Koehler, C. E., & Richardson, P. R. K. (1990). Proteles cristatus. Mammalian Species, 363, 1-6.
Watts, H. E., & Holekamp, K. E. (2007). Hyena societies. Current Biology, 17(16), R657–R660.