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The Spotted Hyena FAQ

Scientific name: Crocuta crocuta

Q: What's the difference between a spotted hyena and any other hyena?

A: There are four species of hyenas: the spotted, striped and brown hyenas and the aardwolf. The aardwolf eats only termites. The striped and brown hyenas scavenge more than the spotted hyena, and look different as well.

Q: They're related to dogs, right?

A: Wrong. Hyenas are a family of their own, the Hyaenidae. They're more closely related to cats than dogs, but their closest relatives are the Herpestidae -- mongooses, meerkats and such.

You can get an idea of how long ago the spotted hyena's ancestors probably split from the ancestors of any other species at this fun website.

Q: But what on earth do they have in common with cats?

A: Skeletal details it would take a specialist to explain. DNA studies also prove the relationship. When hyenas lick the space between their hind legs, they lift one or both hind legs into the air much like cats -- "playing the cello," as one cat-lover has called it. One observer claims the female purrs while suckling her cubs.

Q: Okay, so could a hyena cross with either a cat or a dog and produce offspring?

A: No way! In order to produce offspring, even sterile ones, the parents have to be sufficiently closely related. Hyenas are not closely related enough to dogs or cats to do this. They couldn't possibly produce offspring with any canid or felid, not even with artificial fertilization in a laboratory.

Those stories you read in tabloids and weird websites about cats breeding with rabbits or dogs, and humans breeding with gods only know what, and actually producing hybrid offspring are just that -- wild stories, invented for the ignorant and gullible who want to be titillated.

Yes, there have been many experiments in which human cells have been combined with cells from other animals in laboratories. This does not mean that Doctor Moreau-style pig-people (or hyena-people, or even hyena-cats or hyena-dogs) will happen. It's a very, very long way from a fertilized cell to a full-term baby/cub/piglet/whatever. There are a lot of built-in, natural controls and "switches" in the genes that govern early development, and in a hybrid cell those controls will be hopelessly mixed up. Such hybrid cells grow and divide a few times before they "glitch out", stop growing, and quietly die -- they don't even reach the blastula stage of development. They don't survive long enough to develop into a recognizable fetus, let alone become a functioning animal of any sort.

In still other experiments, scientists may take all the genetic material out of an ovum ("egg," as it's often called) from one species, and put in the genes of another species. The egg is then put into the womb of a female of the second species to gestate normally. These can and sometimes do live and grow to the point of being born. The resulting offspring are not hybrids. They're members in good standing of the species whose genes were used, the same species in every way . . . except that their conception was a bit wierd.

Pharyngula has a good (if acerbic) rundown of all these techniques and what they can and can't do. But the bottom line is: no, we can't cross hyenas with dogs or cats or anything else and create hybrids, not even with today's highly advanced technology. So The Island of Doctor Moreau will remain fiction, not fact.

Q: How hard can a hyena bite, really?

A: Dr. Frank advises me a lot of figures get tossed around, but they usually are just one attempt to measure how hard one individual animal bit on one occasion. Such figures aren't much use. But a hyena can support its own weight by its jaws -- it can actually hang by its jaws from a larger animal. The documentary Hyenas -- Nature's Gangsters shows dramatic proof of this when a hyena hangs onto a full-grown topi antelope by its jaws alone while the topi leaps, lunges and spins in a futile effort to throw off its captor.

However, Wendy Binder of UCLA did do a study on Dr. Frank's hyenas. According to Dr. Frank:

"Unfortunately, Wendy's thesis presents her data in terms of force (Newtons) rather than pressure (psi). She measured forces as high as 4500 Newtons, but a quick search of the internet did not show me an easy way to convert this to a pressure measure. I assume that would involve dividing the force measure over a surface area; the unit conversation program that I found said that 4500 Newtons is equal to 1011 pound force. Perhaps if this were divided by the surface area of the tooth doing the biting??? I would guess that is less than 1/4 sq. in., so the force might be around 4000 psi???"

That should give you an idea how uncertain such measurements are, even in a laboratory setting. But suffice it to say you wouldn't want to get bitten by a spotted hyena.;-)

These figures may not apply to striped and brown hyenas, and definitely don't apply to aardwolves, whose jaws and teeth are so feeble that they can't even chew meat.

Q: Is it true that they're just scavengers?

A: No. Spotted hyenas kill their own prey more often than they scavenge. Favorite prey include wildebeests and zebras. But most carnivores, hyenas included, will scavenge when they get a chance.

Q: I've heard hyenas follow lions around and live off their kills.

A: It's more often the other way around. Lions often take over hyenas' kills; the males will walk right into a clan of feeding hyenas and take the carcass from them. Hyenas will steal kills from lionesses if no male lions are around and they badly outnumber the lionesses.

Q: But in The Lion King . . .

*Sigh* Disney movies are not a good source of info on science or wild animals. Here's a list of some of the things The Lion King got horribly wrong.

Q: They must not get along very well together. Do they?

A: "If animals can hate, this is a blood feud of hatred," according to Eternal Enemies. Male lions will chase and kill hyenas with no provocation. Hyenas will chase a lioness even after she abandons her kill to them. Hyenas kill and eat sick or injured lions.

Q: Do hyenas have any predators, or natural enemies other than lions and humans?

A: No predators actually hunt hyenas for food. It's not terribly efficient or helpful to one's survival to hunt other large predators for a living. However, hyenas are vulnerable to disease organisms and parasites like any other wild animal, and you could call this a kind of predation.

Incidentally, African wild dogs seem to detest spotted hyenas almost as much as lions do. If they catch one alone, especially near their dens or their kills, they'll mob and harass it, to the point of blood being drawn.

Q: Do they really laugh?

A: When excited, especially when being attacked by another hyena, a spotted hyena will make a giggling noise. Spotted hyenas also make other noises, including a long, manic whoop best transcribed as "oooooh-WHUP!." None of these sounds indicate humor as humans know it.

Q: Why do they have those strange sloping backs?

A: The reason is uncertain, but some artiodactyls (cloven-hoofed mammals) that live in open plains also have shoulders higher than their hips: bison, giraffes, and hartebeests, for example. It may make it easier to see over the grasstops, or it might have a less obvious function. No other living carnivores besides hyaenids are built like this, but some sabertooths such as Homotherium also had sloping backs.

Q: How fast can they run?

A: Dr. Frank thinks their top speed is approximately 30 miles an hour.

Q: Will hyenas eat each other?

A: Adult hyenas of the same clan don't normally kill and eat each other. Hans Kruuk records an incident in which hyenas ate the carcass of another hyena of a different clan with whom they had fought earlier.

Q: Is it true that hyenas can change sexes?

A: No mammal can do that. What is true is that the female hyena's genitals look just like the male's: she has a huge clitoris that she can erect at will. She even has a sack of fibrous tissue that looks like testicles.

Q: My God, why?

A: No one knows for sure. We know what it's used for: the hyena greeting ceremony. Each hyena sniffs and licks the other's genitals and raises a leg to offer its own. It's like dogs sniffing each other's rumps. Erection is voluntary, like raising your arm. Interestingly, it's usually the submissive animal that erects its penis or clitoris.

For some interesting stuff on the problems that female spotted hyenas have giving birth as a result, check out this article, based on a paper in Nature (warning: very explicit photos of dissected-out organs). During mating, the female's clitoris actually rolls up like a sleeve into the body, forming a "pseudovagina".

(I have more stuff on hyaenid genitalia on a special page here!)

Q: You said the females are dominant on another page. Don't the males resent this?

A: Sometimes several males will "bait" a single female, standing around her, barking at and even nipping her. She lies down defensively and takes it, only biting back when they get close. Sometimes this baiting is serious: Kruuk saw one female with blood on her legs afterward. Other times the baiting will stop and the female will get up and walk away as if nothing had happened. If her female relatives hear the racket, they may stop the baiting. Whether this is the male spotted hyena equivalent of fighting back against sexism, only hyenas know. Dr. Laurence Frank states that this happens when a female comes into heat and several males are following her. Dr. Mills states that other females may join in.

Q: It sounds as if hyenas don't get along very well, even if they don't eat each other.

A: Kruuk thought adult hyena society remarkably peaceful within the clan, but Dr. Frank states that female hyenas behave very aggressively toward each other. Hyenas from different clans sometimes war with each other in pitched mass battles. These fights seldom cause injuries, but occasionally one or even several hyenas are killed.

Q: Whoa! You said "adult hyena society." Surely the cubs don't fight?

A: Cubs often fight viciously, literally from the moment they're born. BBC's Carnivore! series from the 1980s had gruesome footage showing this. A hyena has given birth to three cubs, and two are already fighting savagely -- until they notice the third, still being licked clean, and attack it. As many as 25 percent of all cubs may die from such fights before adulthood. Unlike most carnivores, hyenas are born with their eyes open and teeth functional.

Scientists have stated that the worst fighting is between sisters in the same litter. In fact, it now seems that the evidence for this is flimsy -- check the paper "Siblicide revisited in the spotted hyaena" for a discussion of this.

Q: Doesn't the mother stop this?

A: Occasionally she tries, but it's a losing battle. Also, cubs dig a network of smaller tunnels from the birthing den, tunnels into which the adults don't fit, and will kill each other there. Or, the weaker cub may be so intimidated that it doesn't dare come out to nurse and so starves to death.

Q: How long does she raise them?

A: The gestation period is 110 days, but the length of time she nurses them varies a lot depending on how dominant she is. The cubs of high-ranking mothers get to eat from the kills at a much younger age than those of low-ranking mothers, so are weaned earlier -- perhaps as early as at 8 months. The cubs of a low-ranking mother may have to nurse up to a year and a half.

Q: Do they mate for life, like wolves?

A: No. Mating is a one-time thing. The females apparently will only mate with males who were not born in the clan, sometimes even with nomadic males not attached to any clan. Males are usually transients anyway, leaving their birth clans to find another, often moving from clan to clan. This may help to avoid inbreeding.

Q: Will hyenas eat people?

A: Dead people, yes, just as they would any other dead animal. Hyenas usually run from humans, which is why scientists studying them stay in cars and watch them through binoculars or video cameras. But in some areas, hyenas occasionally bite or even eat people, especially if they find them sleeping outside at night, according to Dr. Frank.

Q: Are there any zoos where I can go see hyenas?

A: Most zoos don't care to display hyenas, because there isn't much public demand. People still think of hyenas as cowardly, ugly scavengers. If more people get the facts, and zoos get more requests, that may change. I'll try to keep a list of zoos that do have them (in halfway decent conditions that allow them to live a clan life):

The St. Louis Zoo in Missouri has spotted hyenas in its River's Edge exhibit. So does Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, in its "Edge of Africa" exhibit.

Q: All this stuff has made me think about getting myself a pet hyena. Do you know where I can get one, and what they need in captivity? (Try not to snicker: I've had four emails like this already.)

A: I wrote this FAQ to help humans understand hyenas better -- not to make hyenas look like cuddly, fun, exciting pets.

I do not recommend any wild animal as a pet, much less a carnivore, still less a large carnivore. More often than not, it ends up with the animal suffering terribly and even being killed, and sometimes with human beings being mauled or killed as well. (And think about the legal repercussions if a child reaches in through the fence to pet your hyena and gets bitten....) For these reasons, I will not tell you how to get a pet hyena. Please don't ask.

Need more convincing? Have some links!

Don't keep a hyena as a pet. Seriously.

Quora: Can you keep a hyena as a pet?

Q: Do hyenas have any redeeming features at all?

A: The notion that Nature must justify itself to humanity is a holdover from creationism, I think. By comparing and contrasting the strange social behavior of spotted hyenas with other social animals, including primates, we may learn more about ourselves and why we became social, and the evolutionary reasons for male dominance and female dominance in different species. Hyenas also keep their prey animals' numbers under control like any other carnivore, and help rid the plains of carcasses. Finally, hyenas are interesting and have a basic right to exist, just like any other living thing.

Some sources I used for this page:

(Last link check May 5, 2022.)

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