Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena  

We have the spotted hyena, striped hyena, brown hyena, and the aardwolf. Today is focused on the spotted hyena. There are many misconceptions when it comes to these animals. They aren’t only scavengers. They have more ways of communication than laughing. They aren’t related to dogs. All misunderstanding you have of these are complex, highly intelligent, and social animals will be cleared up with this information.

Conservation Status: Least Concern (IUCN)

Scientific name: Crocuta crocuta

Female Weight: 120 to 154lbs (55 kg to more than 70 kg)

Male Weight: 99 to 132lbs (40 to 86 kg)

Size: 3 to 4/5 ft long, 2.5 to 2.6 ft tall

Habitat: Grasslands, savannas, sub deserts, woodlands, bushland  

Diet: Carnivorous

Diurnal or nocturnal: Nocturnal (daylight activity not uncommon)

Gestation Period: 3 months (110 days)

Geographic range: Sub-Saharan Africa

Home Range: Extremely variable

Solitary or Colonial: Colonial – clans

Lifespan: 20 to 25 years

Physical Description

Gray, sandy, golden (around the neck/head, middle of back) with dark brown/black spots covering the body. Spots are more dominant in younger hyena and can appear to be absent with age. The spotted hyena have large necks and heads with front legs that are longer than the hind legs creating the back to slant downwards. They have short and rounded ears unlike other hyenas. Spotted hyena have incisors, canines and carnassial teeth (modified premolars and molars designed for cutting flesh.) Extremely strong jaws allow them to break bones. They have four digits with wide toe pads and short non-retractable claws, enhancing their predatory capabilities. There tail is 30 to 60 cm longs with bushy dark tip of tail. Two-thirds of the tail is bone while the rest is hair.

Distinguishing a female from a male can be difficult for all female hyenas have a pseudo-penis that is capable of erection. They also have sacs filled with fibrous tissue around their genitals appearing to look like a scrotum. No one knows why hyenas have this but there are many theories including higher levels of androgen. Androgen is a male sex hormone associated with aggression.


  • Live in clans made up of 3 – 80 members
  • Females are dominant to all males
  • Females are more aggressive
  • Social ranks occur within the clan, lead by the highest ranking female – the matriarch
  • Males ranks begin below the lowest ranking female
  • Females stay with the clan they were born into for their entire lives
  • Males will leave the clan once reached the age of sexual maturity
  • For males to be accepted into a clan they must be received by the females which can sometimes take days
  • Young are automatically born into the rank of their mother
  • A high rank gives priority to food and other critical resources such as reproductive success, leniency, and support from the clan
  • Higher ranking females and lower ranking females often forage separately
  • The matriarch always has the support of her entire clan, priority feeding, and the highest reproductive success
  • Spotted hyena are territorial
  • Scent marking (anal glands), latrines, vocal expression, and patrolling are used to mark territory
  • When submissive to a higher ranking hyena, one will keep its head low to the ground and ears flat
  • It is important to form relationships within rank to succeed in a clan
  • Infanticide is possible within a clan


  • Spotted hyena make a whooping call used for contact
  • A fast whoop is usually made when they are excited i.e. around a kill
  • Groans and squeals are used for greeting
  • Giggling, yelling, grunting, growling – used with aggression towards clan members, other spotted hyena, other species
  • Hyenas infamous “laughing” (giggling, cackling) is mainly used out of excitement or fear and can be heard up to 3 miles away i.e. when being chased
  • Males calls sometimes go unanswered

Social Greetings

Spotted hyenas greet each other with inspections. When greeting two will stand head to tail, lift the closest rear leg, then sniff each others phallus. This greeting starts at a young age, usually within the first few months. Males will only sometimes be greeted in this way by the highest ranking females. Tactile social greetings like this have only been seen in primate species, this is the first non-primate example to be shown.


Credit to Kay Holekamp


  • Aseasonal breeding
  • Mating begins with males being submissive to females
  • Breed around every 16 to 21 months
  • The female has no external female genitalia and must mate, deliver and urinate through the canal of the pseudo-penis
  • Hyenas raise their young without the help of males
  • An average litter consists of twins
  • 1 to 4 young are possible
  • Born with their eyes open and a full set of teeth
  • Almost completely brown for their spots come with age
  • Cubs will fight to establish dominance and obtain the best nipple for feeding or order of feeding (can be fatal)
  • Hyena milk is one of the most nutritious milks produced with 15% protein 14% fat
  • Cubs are weaned anytime from 12 to 18 months which is an unusually long time for carnivores
  • Cubs can and will begin to eat meat at 5 months but are left in the den when adults go out to hunt
  • Cubs are born in an unused burrow and moved to a communal den a few weeks after birth
  • Communal dens are important for the social behavior of spotted hyena
  • Young usually become independent at 18 months
  • Hyena are incredibly brave and will do anything to save their young for they are key to a clans survival

Female Sexual Maturity: Sexual maturity in females can range anywhere from 21 to 48 months but on average is reached at 40 months.

Male Sexual Maturity: 3 years

Diet and Skills

  • Extremely skilled and resourceful hunters
  • Able to chase down prey over long distances at a rate up to 37 mph (60 km/h)
  • Hunt in groups of 2 to 5, although larger prey require larger groups
  • Opportunistic
  • Spotted hyena have extremely strong jaws and and stomachs (acid in stomachs) allowing them to crack bones to get important nutrients from a kill
  • 800 kg of pressure from a bite – greater than a lion or tiger
  • Hooves, horns, and hair are the only parts of a kill that cannot be fully digested and a regurgitated in pellet form
  • Can eat ⅓ of their body weight in one sitting
  • Uses sharp sight, smell, and hearing to hunt prey and detect carrion


Spotted hyena are one of the top predators in Africa. Hyaenas and lions compete for food which can create hostile encounters that can result in death. However, humans are the biggest threat to Crocuta crocuta when they prey on their livestock. Farmers will sometimes respond in killing hyenas. They are also hunted for food.

Other Facts

  • The rump of a hyena is the most vulnerable part, in conflict you will often notice them sitting or dragging their backside to protect their sensitive behind
  • Not related to dogs, more closely related to cats and mongoose
  • No subspecies of the spotted hyena
  • A keystone species for they scavenge and harness almost every part of their prey


Kruuk, H. 1972. The Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  
External Links:

BBC Earth – Spotted Hyena

Out to Africa – Spotted Hyena

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