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4 Types of Hyenas: Facts and Photos

The hyena's call resounds across the plains of Africa and parts of Asia. Despite its portrayal in popular culture, like in the movie Lion King, all types of hyenas are intelligent and adaptable. 

In this article, we will examine their habitats and behaviors, as well as their diets and distinctive characteristics. Read on to learn more.

General Information about the Hyena

hyena side view
Photo by Hans Veth on Unsplash.

Hyenas are wild animals with a unique appearance. Their fur ranges from shades of brown to grey, and they can have stripes or spots. 

Moreover, they have a large head with broad jaws, some of the strongest in the animal kingdom. They can vary in size depending on the species: adults typically measure 2.5 to 4.5 feet in length and weigh between 90 and 190 pounds. Their front legs are longer than their hind legs, giving them a bear-like gait and hunched posture. 

Interestingly, they have matriarchal societies, where female hyenas weigh more than males. Hyena cubs also stick with their mothers. They suckle for 12 to 18 months, which is unusual for carnivores. 

Hyenas live in various African and Asian habitats, including savannahs, semi-deserts, forests, and alpine landscapes. They can also survive in areas near human settlements.

For instance, striped and brown hyenas play dead when attacked by lions, wild dogs, or other creatures. However, spotted hyenas fight back.

However, these animals face habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict. For instance, people seek out hyena body parts for traditional medicine and tokens. They are said to cure barrenness and help blind people navigate their surroundings.

Moreover, hyenas have attacked humans, targeting women, children, and people with disabilities. Spotted and striped hyenas can take down an adult human male, while brown hyenas and aardwolves don’t attack humans.

As a result, the brown hyena is already a near-threatened species due to habitat fragmentation and other human-caused threats.

Related Read: Hyena Facts.

Taxonomic Classification

Belonging to the order Carnivora and suborder Feliformia, the Hyaenidae family comprises four extant species: the Spotted Hyena, Brown Hyena, Striped Hyena, and Aardwolf. Though their behavior and morphology echo dogs, they're genetically closer to cats and civets.

Hyenas first appeared 22 million years ago and split into two distinct groups - dog-like and bone-crushing hyenas. At one time, over 30 species of hyenas coexisted on Earth. Climate change and competition led to the extinction of most groups.

The Aardwolf alone carries the legacy of the dog-like hyenas, having withstood the tests of time. The other three hyena species belong to the bone-crushing type. Fundamentally, hyenas are survivors, having adapted to the changing world for millions of years.

4 Types of Hyena Species

1. Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

spotted hyena
Photo by Charles J. Sharp on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Spotted Hyena, also called the Laughing Hyena,  is the largest species in the hyena family, growing up to 3 feet in shoulder height and weighing almost 150 pounds. Its coat features large, irregular spots that give it a distinct appearance, and it lives in diverse landscapes of Sub-Saharan Africa. 

It is a highly adaptable animal that can survive in various habitats, like woodlands and savannas.  It can also live in mountainous regions up to 13,100 feet high.

Moreover, Spotted Hyenas are not primarily scavengers but predators. Their favorite menus are wildebeests and zebras. Thanks to their specialized skulls, they can give out bone-crushing bite force comfortably. Their average 1,140 bite force is impressively greater than known carnivores such as brown bears and lions1.

2. Brown Hyena (Parahyaena brunnea)

brown hyena
Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Brown Hyena, also called Strandwolf, is a solitary and reclusive species. It looks hunched due to the shaggy, tousled brown fur that stands up along the neck and shoulders. 

With almost no sexual dimorphism, this type of hyena has a maximum shoulder length of 2.6 feet and a weight of nearly 100 pounds.

Brown Hyenas live in the desolate landscapes of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts in Southern Africa. It has a population of around 10,000 adult individuals.

They have bone-crushing jaws, making them well-equipped for eating the bones of carcasses. Primarily a scavenger, they have an impressive sense of smell to detect dead animals miles away.

Even though they are poor hunters, they supplement their diet by preying on rodents, antelopes, and seal pups. They are also found to consume insects, eggs, and fruits.

One of the surprising characteristics of the Brown Hyena is its tidiness. Unlike other hyenas, it does not leave remnants of its meals scattered around. Instead, it carries the leftovers back to its den, usually inside caves or hidden among rock crevices.

3. Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena)

striped hyena
Photo by zoofanatic on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The striped hyena lives in the heart of Africa and the challenging terrains of Central Asia, particularly the Middle East. It is the only species that ventures outside Africa, reaching as far as India.

This animal is smaller than the Spotted and Brown Hyenas. It has a gray or light brown body with black stripes and a dark mane that stretches from its head to tail. 

Unlike some of Africa's more famous predators, the striped hyena prefers to hunt and scavenge at night. During the day, it withdraws to dens carved into hillsides or tucked beneath rocky outcrops to avoid the sun and prying eyes.

The striped hyena eats the leftovers from other predators' lunches, small to medium-sized animals, insects, and even fruits. It drags its bounty back to its den to savor its meal away from other competitors in the wild.

Unlike other hyenas, the striped hyena is a solitary animal. However, life for these resilient creatures takes a lot of work. They face habitat loss, human conflict, and the danger of road accidents. 

Despite the adversity, they are essential to keeping pest numbers in check and cleaning up carrion.

4. Aardwolf (Proteles cristata)

aardwolf
Photo by Derek Keats on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

While the Aardwolf belongs to the hyena family, it is a solitary insectivore, feeding primarily on termites and insect larvae. 

Its long, sticky tongue enables it to consume up to 250,000 termites in one night. Moreover, its jaws are much smaller and weaker than other hyenas, but they are suitable for eating insects. 

This nocturnal creature always stays near termite mounds, providing an abundant food source. When dawn comes, it retreats to burrows, often using those abandoned by other animals to escape the scorching African heat. Then, it rests before another night of foraging. 

Additionally, the Aardwolf communicates using a mix of vocalizations and postures. It is also territorial, marking its area with secretions from its scent glands. 

Despite their lifestyle, this type of hyena is the least threatened among the hyenas. Still, the encroachment of agriculture into their habitat is a growing concern.

Conclusion

Hyenas are an essential part of their ecosystems as scavengers and hunters. Unfortunately, hyenas face habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and persecution. Conservation efforts are crucial for their survival and the health of the planet's ecosystems.

1

Tanner, J. B., Dumont, E. R., Sakai, S. T., Lundrigan, B. L., & Holekamp, K. E. (2008). Of arcs and vaults: the biomechanics of bone-cracking in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 95(2), 246–255.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Sneha Cecil on Unsplash.
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