Hyenas are essential to African ecosystems, despite being one of the smallest families of mammals in the world.
The four extant species of hyena inhabit most of Africa and throughout most of the Middle East, all the way to India.
What is interesting about hyenas is the fact that, even if today they’re feliform carnivoran mammals and related to felines, they are more similar (in terms of morphology and behavior) to canids.
The two distinct groups of prehistoric hyenas that roamed the earth 10 to 14 million years ago are now called bone-crushing hyenas and dog-like hyenas.
Out of the four extant species we’ll cover in this article, one is the direct descendant of dog-like hyenas.
The bone-crushing type has adapted much better to climate changes and the challenges presented by actual canids.
Did you know that one prehistoric genus of hyena, Pachycrocuta, weighed about 440 lbs and had the strength to crush elephant bones?
Keep reading if you want to learn more interesting facts about the spotted and striped hyenas that roam the desert!
4. Spotted hyena
The spotted hyena is the largest extant member of the Hyaenidae family.
It belongs to the Crocuta genus, which has one extant species and four extinct species.
Even if Crocuta crocuta can be found mainly in Africa today (coastal regions, inland south), and the oldest hyena fossils were found there (3.8 mya), scientists are not sure whether the species evolved in Asia or Africa.
This is probably due to their wide distribution in prehistoric times; bone-crushing hyenas were Eurasia’s dominant scavengers about five million years ago.
Crocuta crocuta specimens are known to gather in clans.
These are large groups consisting of up to 80 individuals.
Despite being part of such large groups, clans will actually divide into smaller groups when it comes to hunting.
Hyenas hunting in small groups are famous for their hunting tactics, some of which are often depicted in the media – cornering prey, for example.
Highly successful hunters, hyenas will not back down from hunting large ungulates but have also been seen hunting birds, fish, and even bugs.
Spotted hyenas are famous for the laugh they produce after a successful hunt.
The sound is a notice for the rest of the clan, signalling the presence of food – in short, dinner time.
Their laugh is also what often gets them into trouble, as it can attract other predators as well, including lions.
Sparring between hyenas and lions over fallen prey is common.
Did you know that the spotted hyena can easily hunt buffalo, topis, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, zebras, and wildebeest and even take down adults if needed?
3. Brown hyena
The scientific name for the brown hyena is Hyaena brunnea.
However, it is often called Parahyaena brunnea, which is part of the Parahyaena genus.
It is, nevertheless, a species of hyena, part of the main Hyaenidae family.
This particular species is found primarily in South Africa, in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and Namibia.
According to sources, Hyaena brunnea is the rarest species of hyena in the world, with anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 specimens alive.
A characteristic of the brown hyena is its long, shaggy coat.
It has a dark brown color and an unkempt appearance, making this wild animal resemble a dog.
This fact is often reinforced by the animal’s short tail, pointy ears, and the cream-colored fur ruff that adults develop around their necks.
While displaying agonistic behavior (fighting, aggression), the species will develop 12-inch-long erectile hairs and bristles along the animal’s neck and back.
Just like spotted hyenas, brown hyenas gather in groups, often referred to as a cackle.
However, this particular species is also known as a solitary scavenger, being known as a strandwolf.
According to research, adults hunt alone and base their strategies on trails they have used in the past and that are marked with scent.
In terms of living, brown hyenas live with a clan or nomadically.
Due to their solitary nature, Hyaena brunnea clans rarely include more than 15 individuals.
Did you know that brown hyenas are usually quiet and do not rely on the laughter characteristic of spotted hyenas?
Even so, they will vocalize as a means of communication during conflicts.
2. Striped hyena
Alongside the spotted hyena, Hyaena hyaena is one of the best-known species of the Hyaena genus, mainly thanks to its significant representation in movies and TV shows.
The striped hyena is native to East and North Africa and parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and India.
The species is classified as near threatened, with around 5,000 to 14,000 specimens left worldwide.
Due to its defensive behavior, the striped hyena is often seen as a scaredy cat.
Specifically, it’s a nocturnal animal that enjoys complete darkness.
One will rarely find a specimen roaming about when the sun is about to rise.
On top of that, it is known to feign death to avoid conflict if attacked.
This changes when the hyena is trying to claim the spoils of a hunt, as it will fight even large predators.
Even though they’re not part of the dog or cat families, striped hyenas exhibit a dog-like appearance.
This is due mainly to their pointed ears and black muzzle.
Another interesting characteristic is the length of their legs.
Like their spotted relatives, striped hyenas have longer front legs.
This allows for a so-called loping gait, a manner of movement that conserves energy during long-distance travel.
Did you know that the striped hyena will relentlessly pursue its prey until it subdues it?
The aardwolf (Proteles cristatusis), for enthusiasts of the Hyaenidae family, probably the most interesting species of hyena out there.
In Dutch and Afrikaans, the name of this species is translated to earth-wolf.
Still, you will come across names such as civet hyena and termite-eating hyena as well.
This is because, unlike the other three hyena species, the aardwolf is insectivorous.
It feasts on larvae, insects, and primarily termites; a hearty meal lasting throughout the night can consist of up to 300,000 termites.
Proteles cristatus is the only survivor and descendant of the dog-like hyenas that lost the battle with climate change and the arrival of canids.
Specifically, the aardwolf didn’t have to compete with other predators to fulfill its insectivorous needs. This ensured its survival.
Aardwolves are specialized in eating insects, and they have two features to prove that.
First, they possess the ability to digest terpene excretions released by soldier termites as a defense mechanism, allowing the aardwolf to chew the insects easily.
This ability is linked to the development of a powerful digestive system throughout the species’ evolution, given that its predecessors had a diet based on fetid carrion.
Second, the species developed cheek teeth in the form of flattened pegs that are perfect for eating insects.
The animal doesn’t use its canine teeth to eat but to defend itself and, if needed, to fight off predators.
Did you know that the aardwolf, when in a dangerous situation (cornered or threatened), can make itself appear 70% larger?
It does so by bristling its mane and tail and raising its body high off the surface.