Hyenas are moderately large terrestrial carnivores
native to Africa, Arabia, Asia and the Indian subcontinent. They
are members of the family Hyaenidae.
Although hyenas bear some physical resemblance to canids, they make up a separate biological family that is most closely related to Herpestidae (the family of mongooses and meerkats). With the exception of the insectivorous Aardwolf, hyenas have among the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom and an adult of the species has only the big cats (Lions) to fear.
All species have a distinctly bear-like gait due to their
front legs being longer than their back legs. The Aardwolf,
striped hyena and brown hyena have luxurious, striped pelts and
manes lining the top of their necks which erect when frightened.
The spotted hyena's fur is considerably shorter and is spotted
rather than striped. Unlike other species, its mane is reversed
Hyenas are highly intelligent animals, and some scientists claim they are of equal intelligence to certain apes. One indication of hyena intelligence is that they will move their kills closer to each other to protect them from scavengers; another indication is their strategic hunting methods.
The majority of hyena species show little sexual dimorphism, usually with males being only slightly larger than the females. The spotted hyena is an exception to this as females are larger than the males and dominate them. One unusual feature of the spotted hyena is that females have an enlarged clitoris called a pseudo-penis or demi-penis. Female hyenas give birth, copulate, and urinate through their protruding genitalia, which stretches to allow the male penis to enter for copulation, and it also stretches during birth. The anatomical position of the genitalia gives females total sexual control over who is allowed to mate with them. Researchers originally thought that one of the things that causes this characteristic of the genitals is androgens that are expressed to the fetus very early on in its development. However, it was discovered that when the androgens are held back from the fetus, the development of the female genitalia was not altered.
All species excrete an oily, yellow substance from their anal glands onto objects to mark their territories. When scent marking, the anal pouch is turned inside out, or everted. Hyenas also do this as a submissive posture to more dominant hyenas. Genitals, the anal area, and the anal glands are sniffed during greeting ceremonies in which each hyena lifts its leg and allows the other to sniff its anal sacks and genitals. All four species maintain latrines far from the main denning area where dung is deposited. Scent marking is also done by scraping the ground with the paws, which deposits scent from glands on the bottoms of the feet.
The hyaenids have no fossil record before the mid-Miocene period, about 10 million years ago, thus making them the most recent addition to the carnivora. It is believed that the family began in Africa and spread through Europe and Asia. The hyena's peak was during the Pleistocene, with 4 genera and 9 species of hyena. Extinct hyena genera included civet-like tree dwellers and speedy species designed for running down prey, along with even more powerfully developed bone crushing species similar to modern hyena. Fossil examples include the genera Protictitherium, Ictitherium, Chasmaporthetes, Adcrocuta, Pachycrocuta and Percrocuta (of which P. gigantea was the largest Hyena which ever lived). Their success was largely due to the fact that the sabre-toothed cat's which they coexisted with, were unable to make full use of their prey due to the nature of their dentition. The hyena's powerful jaws and digestive systems allowed them to consume otherwise undigestible parts. As the sabre-toothed cats began to die out and be replaced by short fanged felids which were more efficient eaters, some hyenas began to hunt for themselves and began evolving into new species, the modern spotted hyena being among them.
Most lines of hyena died out towards the end of the Miocene, possibly due to competition from early canids. The running hyena Chasmaporthetes survived until the first ice ages, and the Eurasian Cave Hyena survived until the end of the last ice age, when they died out along with much of the Eurasian megafauna.
With the exception of the striped hyena which has been seen in
the jungles of India, all modern hyena species generally reside
in arid environments like African savannahs and deserts.
With the exception of the Aardwolf, all hyena species are efficient scavengers. They have extremely strong jaws in relation to their body size and have a very powerful digestive system with highly acidic fluids, making them capable of eating and digesting their entire prey, including skin, teeth, horns, bones and even hooves. Since they eat carrion, their digestive system deals very well with bacteria.
The spotted hyena is primarily a predator, unlike its cousins. Spotted hyenas are successful pack hunters of small to large sized ungulates and are the most abundant carnivore on the African continent.
The Aardwolf is a specialized feeder of termites, thus lacking the size and physical power of its cousins.
Negative associations have generally stemmed from their tendency to scavenge graves for food (being one of the few creatures naturally suited for this due to their ability to devour and digest every part of a carcass, including bone). As such, many associate hyenas with gluttony, uncleanliness, and cowardice.
Their haunting laughter-like calls inspired the idea in local cultures that they could imitate human voices and call its victims by name. Hyenas are also associated with divination and sometimes thought of as tools of demons and witches. In African folklore, witches and sorcerers are thought to ride hyenas, or even turn into them.
Christian legend reports that a hyena once brought a blind boy to Macarius the Egyptian who restored his sight to him. Isaiah says of Babylon that "hyenas will howl in their citadels" adding their voices to the sounds of desolation to be heard in this once beautiful city (Isaiah 13:22). The hyena was also a symbol of wisdom and cleverness, however, because of its constant laughter, its knowledge was seen to be that of the debased, profane, earthly, or initiatory kind. The wise hyena was a fool compared to the all-knowing God and symbolized the foolishness of man's wisdom as opposed to that of the Father (I Cor 1:25).
African attitudes toward hyenas are little better than those held in the Western world. The majority of African tribes view hyenas as inedible and greedy hermaphrodites. The Bouda is a mythical tribe reputed to house members able to transform into hyenas. Belief in "Werehyenas" is so entrenched within the traditional lore of the Bornu people of north-eastern Nigeria, that their language even contains a special word bultungin which translates as "I change myself into a hyena".
Early naturalists thought hyenas were hermaphrodites or commonly practiced homosexuality, largely due to the female spotted hyena's unique urogenital system. According to early writings such as Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Physiologus, the hyena continually changed its sex and nature from male to female and back again. In Paedogogus, Clement of Alexandria noted that the hyena (along with the hare) was "quite obsessed with sexual intercourse." Many Europeans associated the hyena with sexual deformity, prostitution, and deviant sexual behavior.
This Hyena Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub