Range and Habitat
Spotted hyenas live throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They live in the savannah, arid semi-desert, dry woodlands, and rocky mountainous forests. They avoid true deserts, tropical rainforests, and costal areas.
The spotted hyena is the most well-known of the hyena family. They are pale brown, with dark spots on their body and a dark brown mask on their face. Their fur often has a slightly reddish cast. Their hair is short and coarse with a wooly undercoat. They have a sloping body, with high shoulders and low hips. Their large round body is set on comparatively thin legs, with four toes on each foot.
The large round ears are set high and to the side of the head, which has a short, broad muzzle and thick neck.
Sexual dimorphism is very prominent in spotted hyenas. The females are considerably larger than the males due to an excess of testosterone that is greater in the female hyena than the male. Females average at least 10 kg heavier than males, and are more muscular and more aggressive.
Spotted hyenas are primarily hunters rather than scavengers. They hunt alone or in packs lead by a female leader. They will most often bring down large herbivores, such as gazelle, water buffalo, zebra, warthog, giraffe, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. They will also eat small game, domestic livestock, and carrion. Hyenas are the dominant predator in Africa after man, accounting for perhaps half of the game brought down by animals.
Despite their reputation as scavengers, carrion makes up less than 5% of their diet. While popular belief has hyenas stealing kills from lions, the opposite is actually true - more lions steal kills from hyenas.
Hyenas generally hunt at night, but also are sometimes active during the day. They travel extensively searching for prey. They will run through a herd at up to 60 miles an hour, and single out an individual animal as the prey. They will bring it down with their powerful bite, severing major blood vessels in the neck and disemboweling it. Males and females will fight over food, a fight the female usually wins. Hyenas will sometimes cache their food underwater.
The hyena can eat all of the carcass - their powerful jaws crush bone, even a thick femur bone, to get to the marrow. Their digestive fluid is highly acidic and they can even digest bone. For this reason their feces is often white.
Reproduction & Sex
The female spotted hyena can mate anytime during the year. Females mate with males who are not members of their clan, but wanderers. The genitalia of females is very interesting, due to the large amounts of testosterone in their bodies. The vulva is fused and looks like a scrotum and testes, and the clitoris is large and resembles a phallus, and can be erected just like a penis. The vagina runs through this pseudo-penis. To mate the female can invert her clitoris so that the male can insert his penis.
Hyenas have been known to have sex for fun, and participate in homosexual activity, especially females with other females.
The gestation period is 4 months and the cubs are born fully developed, with their eyes open and fully formed teeth. Cubs are very active from the beginning. Because of the formation of the genitalia, giving birth is very hard for hyenas and many cubs and mothers die in childbirth. The clitoris usually ruptures during childbirth, causing a gaping wound that can take weeks to heal.
Each female suckles her own cubs, for 6-12 months before weaning (through full weaning may not take place for another 2-6 months). It is speculated that they suckle this long because of the high bone content of their diet. Spotted hyena milk is very rich, having a the highest protein count of any land carnivore, and fat content second only to the polar bear.
Spotted hyenas live in large clans, up to 100 strong and mostly female. The clan is matriarchal, led by the alpha female. Female cubs stay with the clan after reaching maturity, but male cubs leave. They mark their territory and defend it from other hyenas. There is a strict hierarchy within the clan females, who compete with one another for social position. The females dominate the males through aggressive displays. The different clans of hyenas will wage wars on each other for territory.
Sibling rivalry is fierce among spotted hyenas. After the cubs are born in a communal den they generally perform siblicide. Siblings of the same sex will battle for dominance, biting each other in the neck and shaking. The winner keeps the other from nursing until it dies. Siblings of opposite sexes do not compete with each other.
Spotted hyenas have a complex greeting ritual involving sniffing and licking each other genitalia. These highly social mammals have the most complex social structure of any non-primate species.
Spotted hyenas and lions hate one another. Lions account for around 50% of all spotted hyena deaths. Lions and spotted hyenas put up territory boundaries against one another, and threaten border crossers just as if they were one of their own species. Spotted hyenas will kill lions, and lions will kill spotted hyenas. During dry seasons, or times of drought and famine, lions and hyenas will wage war on each other for territory. Lions are the only natural predator of the spotted hyena.
Humans will also kill spotted hyenas.