Long misunderstood as dim-witted, a greedy scavenger with a demonic laugh, the spotted hyena has a “serious PR crisis on its paws”.
That’s because centuries of literature and traditional folklore—often featuring stories of witchcraft, grave-digging, and sexual deviance—have cemented a deep-rooted disgust for the hyena in the human psyche.
The Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) is an adept hunter capable of killing an animal as large as a wildebeest. It is the biggest known member of the Hyaenidae.
This cunning predator is bulky with a sloping back, a light-brown coat marked with dark-brown spots and an exceptionally powerful jaw which enables it to crack open bones and slice through the thickest hide.
Furthermore, it is distinguished from other species by its vaguely bear-like build, rounded ears, less prominent mane, spotted pelt, more dual-purposed dentition, fewer nipples, and presence of a pseudo-penis in the female. It is the only mammalian species to lack an external vaginal opening.
In Uganda, as elsewhere in Africa, the spotted hyena is the most common family member of large, hunchbacked carnivores whose somewhat canid appearance belies a closer evolutionary relationship to mongooses and cats.
The secretive striped hyena (hyaena hyaena) and the insectivorous aardwolf (proteles cristatus) are also present in Kidepo Valley National Park and its environs but very uncommon.
Spotted Hyena Social Structure
Most hyena species live in loosely structured matriarchal clans of around ten animals: their social interaction is fascinating to observe.
Stronger and larger females lead clans. Cubs of the alpha female inherit the rank immediately below hers, similar to a monarchy.
Spotted hyenas are far more abundant than any other large predator on the African continent; they are second only to lions in body size. Spotted hyenas occur from approximately 17° N of the equator to 28° S, with the most significant number occupying the tropics.
Spotted hyenas occupy an enormously diverse array of habitats, including savanna, deserts, swamps, woodland, and montane forest up to 4000 meters of elevation.
They do not thrive in uninterrupted low-elevation rainforest habitats but appear to do well in montane forests, forest-savanna mosaics, and tropical forests containing open clearings or “bais”. They also occur in certain parts of the Congo basin.
Spotted hyenas occur at low densities in many arid and semiarid habitats. Hyenas occupying such areas do not derive any significant fraction of their water intake from drinking; instead, these hyenas obtain most of their water from the bodies of their prey. Even lactating females can survive without water for over one week.
The highest population densities for the spotted hyena in Uganda occur on the prey-rich savanna plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park, Murchison Falls National Park and Kidepo Valley National Park and, surprisingly, in the montane forest of Mgahinga National Park.
In these areas, densities of spotted hyenas often exceed one animal per square kilometre.
Cracking the hyena myths
Centuries of literature and traditional folklore—often featuring stories of witchcraft, grave-digging, and sexual deviance—have cemented a deep-rooted disgust for the hyena in the human psyche.
Aristotle characterised the hyena as “exceedingly fond of putrefied flesh.” Hemingway labelled the animal a “hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead.” And Roosevelt called it a “singular mixture of abject cowardice and the utmost ferocity,” according to a 1995 study on the hyena’s status throughout history.
With such an unsavoury history, it’s no surprise that pop culture depictions of hyenas have followed suit. The movie, The Lion King again portrays a trio of spotted hyenas as evil sidekicks of the villain Scar.
Mostly, it’s fear and lack of understanding of these hyenas, coupled with their unusual appearance and scavenging tendencies, that have spawned so many negative stereotypes. But today, with the help of National Geographic, it’s time to set the record straight.
Myth 1: Hyenas are stupid.
The Lion King’s hyena trio, Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed, lurk in the shadows of the elephant graveyard. Ed is dim-witted, with unfocused eyes and a floppy tongue, and he gnaws on his own flesh. Under Scar’s leadership, the hyenas contribute to the collapse of the entire Pride Rock ecosystem.
In reality, these apex predators are critical to controlling prey populations and preventing the spread of disease, particularly by eating every last bit of a carcass.
Spotted and brown hyenas live in tight-knit clans led by an alpha—often a female—and include lower-ranking females, males, and young. Clan size depends mainly on prey availability, ranging from 10 members in some desert-dwelling clans to around 120 animals. Such large and complicated groups make spotted hyenas “the most socially complex carnivores in the world. You couldn’t maintain all these social bonds if you weren’t intelligent.
Myth 2: Hyenas laugh.
Vocalisations keep hyena societies intact: Their classic whoop serves to recruit more hyenas during a fight with lions, advertise a male’s fitness, or simply communicate with other hyenas about location. Then there’s the oft-misunderstood laugh or giggle, which is unique to the spotted hyena.
For centuries, authors have described this sound as deceitful or mischievous. “I will laugh like a hyena, and that when thou art inclined to sleep,” Shakespeare writes in As You Like It. In truth, it’s not a happy noise: A lower-ranking animal makes this laughing-like sound when upset or stressed.
Myth 3: Hyenas are only scavengers.
As the storyline goes, “the lion is the king, and the hyena is a skulking, nasty, dirty thing because it’s a scavenger”. This myth refuses to die, even with the evidence to the contrary staring everyone in the face.
The truth? Hyenas are excellent hunters whose spoils are more likely to be stolen by lions than the other way around. In the Serengeti in the 1970s, zoologist Hans Kruuk found that when spotted hyenas and lions share a carcass, hyenas were responsible for the kill 53 per cent of the time.
That’s not to say that hyenas will ignore available food; any self-respecting carnivore would scavenge if given the opportunity. And they’re exceptional at it. Sledgehammer-like jaws shatter bones, while highly acidic stomachs break down the shards.
Myth 4: Spotted hyenas are weak.
In the meagre deserts of southern Namibia, brown hyenas maintain home ranges of up to 1,150 square miles. A hyena will walk an average of 15 miles a night in search of a meal.
Such endurance is due in part to their streamlined body shape. Stubby hind legs increase energy efficiency, allowing the animals to lope easily across the ground.
Hyenas also have big, strong lungs, hearts, and wide nostrils that facilitate oxygen exchange.
Myth 5: Hyenas stink
The Kanguru people of Tanzania believe hyenas dig up the graves of the dead, which, according to their beliefs, is why they smell bad. In reality, hyenas actually don’t have much of a smell. You want to talk about a stinky animal, the African wild dog rolls in its own poop.
Hyenas produce a substance from their anal gland that scientists have nicknamed “hyena butter”—a paste used to mark their territories and smells like mulch.
Myth 6: Hyenas are hermaphrodites.
Female hyenas are stellar mothers, investing more time in their cubs than most carnivores. Not only do they nurse cubs on extremely calcium-rich milk for two years, but moms also wrestle and play with their young for hours at a time—another sophisticated, primate-like behaviour.
However, spotted hyena females are often mistaken for males, and they have genitals that resemble males’.
When two hyenas—male or female—greet, the higher-ranking animal will sniff the lower-ranking animal’s genitals to reinforce bonds and lower stress levels.
Females also urinate, mate, and give birth through this pseudo-penis.
This physical trait has particularly harmed the hyena’s public persona. In Physiologus, a Christian text from the second century AD, the hyena is said to alternate between male and female and thus “is unclean because it has two natures,” according to the 1995 study.
Spotted Hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) has most recently been assessed for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2014 and is listed as Least Concern.