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Brown hyenas: some facts and photos

Note: these photos courtesy of Dr. M.G.L. Mills. Please do not copy them without his permission.

brown hyenas greeting

Here, a brown hyena family engages in a greeting ceremony. Female brown hyenas don't have the grossly enlarged clitorises of spotted hyenas, so greeting is more like what dogs do, with sniffing of each other's anal regions.

All a clan's females are likely to breed, not just the dominant ones. There's no particular mating or birthing season -- they can be born at any time of year. The mothers use a common area to dig their dens, but each mother has her own den. The den might be an abandoned aardwolf or aardvark tunnel, which she will enlarge, or she might dig it herself from scratch. The litters are small compared to most other carnivores -- usually one or two.

brown hyena scent-marking

While female littermates will sometimes fight to the death, older cubs will also play like other young mammals, even with cubs of other females' litters.

Brown hyenas, like spotted hyenas, mark with their anal glands -- but they have two types of secretions, not one. This one was collared as part of a research project.

brown hyena with carrion

The brown hyena is perhaps the biggest mammal that makes most of its living off scavenging -- a rarity among land-bound life forms larger than insects. Even more surprisingly, it manages to make a living this way in an arid habitat without great herds of herbivores, where carcasses must be few and far between. It's easy to see why its range is now so limited, harder to see how it evolved in the first place. Perhaps it was not always as dependent upon carrion as it is now.

This one is pulling on the carcass of a gemsbok, a big antelope native to the Kalahari desert.

Brown hyenas will also vary their diet with fruit, however -- the local species of melon is a favorite treat.

Each animal forages alone most of the time, because their food -- carrion, seashore pickings and fruit -- is usually found in small quantities and doesn't have to be killed by a pack. When brown hyenas collect in groups, it's mostly at the den site, though several may come together at a big carcass to feed.

two brown hyenas fighting

Here, two brown hyenas are in a minor scrap. Brown hyenas do fight over territory, but the battles are usually less vicious than those of spotted hyenas. Territory belongs to the clan, a loose-knit family of related females and their male mates. Females are dominant, but not nearly as aggressively so as spotted hyena females.

My grateful thanks to Dr. Mills, who loaned me these photos for this site.