Besides a laugh that causes chills down some people’s spine, the hyena is not the most beautiful creature on the planet. But this animal has a very important purpose in nature – let’s find out what makes him so cool.
1. Out of Africa
Hyenas make up one of the smallest biological families among mammals. There are only four species: spotted hyenas, brown hyenas (strandwolves), striped hyenas and aardwolves. All of them are found in Africa, apart from striped hyenas, who are also found in Asia. The Kruger National Park is famous for its large population of spotted hyenas, who like to make an appearance at the campsites at night when the campers put some meat on the braai (luckily, fences keep them from coming too close). They announce their arrival with loud calls of ‘ooh-whoo’.
2. Man’s best friend?
Hyenas are often confused with wild dogs. To complicate matters even more, they share a lot of characteristics with felines too. However, they are their own distinct kind of animal.
3. What’s so funny?
Spotted hyenas are quite famous for their high-pitched giggling, but it’s not that they find everything hilarious. Rather, it’s a way for them to communicate with one another. The laughter usually ensues when they’ve found food. The way individual hyenas laugh tells other hyenas about their social status in the clan, as well as their age. The higher-ranking hyenas get to eat first. Hyenas have a wide range of other calls that they use, and their tails are also a good indication of their mood: upright means excited, erect means angry and between the legs means fearful.
4. Smart cookies
Although their odd fits of giggling might show otherwise, spotted hyenas are actually very smart. In recent studies, they have proven to even out-think chimpanzees! They displayed amazing feats of co-ordination and problem-solving among themselves, even without making any sounds.
5. Skilled hunters
Spotted hyenas are phenomenal hunters, even though people tend to associate all species of hyenas with scavengers. In fact, it’s estimated that they kill most of their own prey, and often lions will try to scavenge hyenas’ kills. Striped and brown hyenas are scavengers, even though they will sometimes kill their own prey.
6. The weird cousin
Unlike the other hyena species, aardwolves are insectivores (they eat insects). They have long and sticky tongues, and will eat as many as 250,000 termites when they come out of their burrows at night. They have long manes that they raise when they feel threatened. Aardwolves mate for life and raise their cubs together.
7. Mane problem
There’s a lot of competition between lions and hyenas in the wild, as they are both quite large, ferocious animals after the same prey. They will frequently steal food from each other. When lions and hyenas cross paths, violence typically ensues, and they will kill each other on sight. In Ethiopia, a fight over territory between lions and hyenas lasted for two weeks, and got so out of hand that in the end six lions and 35 hyenas were killed.
8. Queen of the jungle
Spotted hyenas live in matriarchal societies, which means that the females are in charge. They are bigger and more aggressive than the males. Among brown hyenas, clans are structured more like a wolf pack, with an alpha male and female. Striped hyenas live in small groups.
9. Jaws of life
Hyenas have incredibly strong jaws that deliver one of the most powerful bites in the animal kingdom – even more so than lions. This allows them to crack through tough bones to get to the marrow inside. They eat so much bone material that their poo is chalky white.
10. Social butterflies
Spotted hyena clans can have up to 80 members! The clans are very fluid though, and may break up into smaller groups and meet up again later at the central den. Cubs spend their first months at the den. They are born with dark, blackish fur and their eyes already open.