Written, and photographs, by Sophie Barrett
I am a huge – and I do mean huge – fan of Disney, but there is one perpetual bone I have to pick with them. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to forgive Walt for the label he placed on spotted hyenas. These are some of my all-time favourite animals – they are incredibly intelligent, complex individuals that form intricate and advanced societies, and unfortunately they are very much maligned!
Hopefully the following fascinating facts will help to dispel some of the rumours surrounding these brilliant animals.
1) Spotted hyenas are intriguing creatures. They belong to neither the dog, nor the cat family. In fact, they are more closely related to mongooses than to either a cat or dog! They have their own family of Hyaenidae, which is shared with brown hyenas, striped hyenas and the elusive aardwolf.
2) Spotted hyenas run a society where females are placed firmly at the top of the pyramid. Not only is there a woman in charge, but all of the females in a clan (which is the collective noun for a group of spotties) will rank higher than all of the males. It has been observed that spotties operate a so-called ‘fission-fusion’ society. Members of the clan will split up and reform in various groupings throughout the day.
Interestingly, it has also been observed that when there is a new technique for hunting or finding food that one of the clan members has learnt, they will suspend the rankings for the length of time it takes to teach the new technique to all members of the clan, and when everyone is up to speed the rankings will be reasserted. This is one of the reasons that spotted hyenas are able to be so successful in the wild.
3) It is surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between a male and female spotted hyena. Females have about three times as much testosterone as males, which leads to them being typically more muscular and aggressive.
Their genital appearance cannot be easily labelled as either male or female unless examined carefully. Male spotties have a normal functional penis and a scrotum containing testes, but females have extreme masculinisation of the external genitalia forming an enlarged penis-like clitoris. This is in effect a urogenital canal, a single organ through which the female hyena passes urine, mates and gives birth. It is erectile in the same way as the male penis. In the position where you might expect to find the vaginal orifice there is a pseudo-scrotum formed by fused labia.
So how do you differentiate between a male and female in the wild? Well ideally you need to be within 20-30 metres of the animal and it needs to have an erection. When erect the male’s penis has an angular, pointed appearance with a small constriction just below the glans. The female urogenital canal is shorter and thicker, blunt at the tip with almost no constriction below the glans. Females will also have teats which might be enlarged if the female has cubs, and the females are typically larger than the males in general.
4) Spotted hyenas typically give birth to two cubs at a time, very occasionally larger litters have been seen but it is very rare for all of the cubs to survive to adulthood. This is partially due to siblicide which has been observed. It is not clear whether this is from an intention to kill the sibling or whether it is the earliest demonstration of testing or establishing a position in the clan hierarchy.
It has been observed that more often these after-birth confrontations will end fatally where the cubs are the same sex, whereas when the cubs are different sexes, confrontation has still been observed but it appears to result less frequently in the death of one of the cubs.
5) Spotted hyenas have the most nutritious and protein-rich milk of all terrestrial mammals, only the milk of sea otters and polar bears has a higher fat content. This is because spotted hyenas will not usually bring meat for cubs back to the den, nor are they able to regurgitate meat for the cubs due to their very fast metabolism. Their milk must therefore provide the nutrients that the cubs would otherwise be getting from meat.
6) Spotted hyenas have a variety of vocalisations, probably the most well-known of which is the ‘giggle’. This is a noise typically associated with a state of emotional excitement of the hyenas. It is often an indicator of stress and will be heard around a carcass as the individuals confirm the pecking order for feeding.
Cubs make an adorable noise known as ‘squittering’ when communicating with their mother. And the ‘whoop’, one of the iconic sounds of the African bush at night, is a call that has been shown to carry information about the identity, sex, age and location of individual making it. Incredibly, studies have shown that spotted hyenas can actually use these ‘whooping’ calls to count, helping a clan to assess the number of potential intruders into their territory to help them decide when to gather and chase the intruders off.
Spotted hyenas are curious, inquisitive and fiercely intelligent. I hope this little snapshot into their world has helped you to see past the stereotype to glimpse the wonder within.