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The Striped Hyena

Scientific name: Hyaena hyaena

This is the world's most widespread living hyaenid, the hyena of Asia and the Middle East as well as Africa. It's incredibly adaptable. Wildlife biologist Priya Singh called this species "the most important large scavenger found in tropical forest and grassland ecosystems."

Yet, we know surprisingly little about striped hyenas. Nocturnal and solitary, they're so good at hiding from people that even wildlife researchers find them difficult to study.

In Turkey, when a hunter trapped three striped hyenas in 2004, the news media did not even know that striped hyenas are native there, and reported the story as "Hyaena from Africa was trapped"; there had been no reports of hyenas in Turkey for the past 40 years. Yet they were probably living there all along, hidden. This points up just how elusive they can be.

Because of this elusiveness, scientists have only begun doing proper studies of them; they don't yet know enough about striped hyenas to even plan decent conservation programs for them. They have learned a few things.

Striped hyenas are abundant in some areas, scarce and thinly scattered in others. We don't yet know exactly what factors cause this. In a study of two regions in India, their abundance had nothing to do with livestock density, but they did have higher population densities in a region with mostly steep hills and large protected areas for wildlife.

Each striped hyena roams alone most of the time, usually at night, much like a brown hyena or an aardwolf. A female's home territory will overlap that of several males. Dr. Aaron P. Wagner has stated that the males who live in territories next to each other are usually not related, and that the female prefers to mate with these males rather than with a roaming stranger the way spotted hyenas do. Females sharing a home territory "cooperate (to some extent) in raising young."

Dr. Wagner found that striped hyenas in Laikipia in Kenya lived in clans of one female and up to four males. But at Shompole in southern Kenya (where there is more food for them), the females had smaller territories, and more than one female might share the same territory.

This pattern is very unusual for a mammal. No other solitary carnivore -- as far as we know -- has this territorial system of several males sharing their ranges with a female.

Striped hyenas eat fruit and insects and hunt small animals, as well as any carrion they can find. There is little evidence that they ever hunt large animals as spotted hyenas do, and definitely never in packs.

That said, there are two separate reports of a striped hyena traveling with a pack of gray wolves, in Israel. In one incident, the researchers actually saw the mixed pack themselves. They speculate that the wolves may have accepted the hyena because of its keener sense of smell. The hyena, of course, could have eaten the wolves' leftovers.

In eastern Jordan, one group of researchers found that striped hyenas used lava caves as dens. The hyenas often dragged animal parts back into their caves to eat them. This is interesting, because brown and spotted hyenas don't drag animal parts back to their lairs (but the extinct cave hyena did). He found bones of domestic sheep and goats, and sometimes of antelope, but most of the bones were of camels. A striped hyena can't kill a camel, so these may have been leftover scraps from humans butchering the camels (people in the Middle East do eat camel meat). The hyenas had dug pits in the caves, perhaps in search of water. They explored even small, narrow places. The fact that most of the cave area was in total darkness didn't seem to discourage them. Interestingly, the hyenas didn't raise their cubs in the caves.

Although the colors and patterns of its coat look like those of the aardwolf, the striped hyena isn't closely related to it. Maybe this particular coat pattern has deep roots in the evolutionary past of hyaenids in general, and both the aardwolf and the striped hyena have kept it all these millions of years.

The adult female doesn't have a peniform clitoris like the spotted hyena female does; her genitals look more "normal", like those of the brown hyena or the aardwolf. However, we've just discovered that striped hyenas' genitals change in very unusual ways during their adolescence -- see here for the amazing details. We know nothing about what striped hyena mating behavior is like, or how they raise their young, or how they socialize with each other or defend their territories. All these await further research.

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(Last link check May 5, 2022.)

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