At Outlook Safaris, we had another very special sighting this week when we came across a hyena den with lots of little cubs. They were scared of us at first, but they very quickly became more curious about our safari vehicle and started to inspect it. At one stage they even tried to eat the tyres!
A question we are asked very often is whether hyenas are related to dogs. And in spite of their appearance and what popular opinion may have you believe, the answer is no. They are in fact more closely related to cats.
Hyenas even get hair-balls just like cats and their direct ancestors were civets, which is a group that they diverged from a few million years ago. However Hyenas are not members of the dog or cat families – instead, they are so unique that they have a family all their own, Hyaenidae. There are four members of the Hyaenidae family: the striped hyena, the “giggly” spotted hyena, the brown hyena, and the aardwolf (it’s a hyena, not a wolf).
Here are some other wacky facts about hyenas:
– Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws and modified teeth for crushing (not slicing) bones to get to the marrow and make pieces easy to swallow.
– Hyenas are considered sneaky scavengers but they are actually skilled hunters as well. Clans will organise to take down prey as large as zebra. Most clans actually hunt and kill the majority of what they eat themselves.
– Hyenas use various sounds, postures and signals to communicate with each other. One of the most characteristic sounds that hyena produce is ‘laughter’. This sound alerts other hyenas that a new food source is located.
– Hemingway hated hyenas. Given their reputations as scavengers, and their creepy laughs, it makes sense that plenty of people don’t like hyenas. In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain …”
– The older the hyena, the gnarlier their ears are. Although they are tight-knit and extremely dependent on each other, the members of a hyena clan spend a lot of time beating each other up!