All About the Hyena: Misunderstood Predators

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

Scientific nameHyaenidaeWeight67.6 kilograms (149 pounds) 
Pronunciationhai-ee-nuhLength85 to 176 centimeters (33 to 70 inches) 
ClassificationCarnivora, Feliformia, & ViverroideaLocationAfrica & Asia 

The Hyena

Spotted hyena in Africa | KenCanning via Getty Images

Hyenas are famous as the notorious henchmen of Scar, the antagonist of Simba in Disney’s Lion King movie. 

Interestingly, this unique creature has a terrible reputation in real life as well. 

They are natural villains, despised across cultures for their thieving, opportunistic tendencies. 

Hyenas are famous scavengers known to feast on the leftovers of other predators. 

However, they’re probably one of the most misunderstood animals, and many commonly touted facts about them are inaccurate. 

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

For instance, contrary to their reputation as lazy opportunists, hyenas are actually skilled hunters efficient at hunting prey. 

They’re Africa’s most common land carnivores and an important part of the continent’s terrestrial ecosystem, capable of hunting large prey such as antelopes and wildebeest. 

But a few well-known facts about them (like their scavenging habit) are also true. 

In this article, we’ll explore all the facts about the notorious hyena and highlight the ecological, cultural, and scientific significance of this fascinating species. 

Taxonomy and Classification

Gage Beasley's Hyena Soft Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Hyena Soft Stuffed Plush Toy

Hyenas are carnivorous mammals in the Hyaenidae family. 

The family contains four genera and four living species. 

These include: 

  • Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus
  • Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta
  • Striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena
  • Brown hyena (Parahyaena brunnea)

The spotted hyena is the most well-known and widely distributed of all these species.

They belong to the Order Carnivora, which branched into dog and cat lineages about  50 million years ago. 

Although hyenas generally have a dog-like build, which might suggest that they’re related to the canids, they are actually feliform. 

This means they’re more related to cats than dogs, despite their appearance and behavior. 

They’re also distantly related to the viverrids, commonly called ferrets. 

Spotted Laughing Hyena on the hunt | wilpunt via Getty Images

Hyenas evolved in the jungles of Eurasia during the Miocene Epoch, about 22 million years ago. 

They evolved from tree-dwelling ancestors similar in form to the modern African civet. 

The extinct Plioviverrops is one of the earliest hyenids to have ever evolved. 

Over time, this hyena ancestor evolved further and diversified into two distinct groups. 

One group was lightly built with a dog-like appearance, while the other group had the more familiar robust bone-crushing build of most modern hyena species. 

The nimble, dog-like hyenas were dominant until about five to seven million years ago when they began to decline. 

Today, the aardwolf is the only living representative of that hyena lineage. 

The more robust, bone-crushing hyenas became more dominant about 10 to 14 million years ago. 

The brown and striped hyenas evolved first, while the spotted hyena diverged from them about 10 million years ago.

Physical Characteristics

A solid hyena build | pjmalsbury via Getty Images

Most modern hyenas have a robust wolf-like build. 

They have a bulky build with a sloping back caused by their long forelegs and relatively short hind legs.

This gives them a somewhat hunched appearance.

The aardwolf is the smallest of all hyenas.

It resembles a small, slender dog, and its sloping back is less noticeable compared to the other species. 

The hyena’s skull is superficially similar to that of wolves and other canids. 

But it is significantly larger and heavier, with a shorter face compared to dogs. 

Hyenas also have short, blunt claws that are non-retractable, another feature they share with the dog family of carnivores. 

Spotted hyenas are the biggest of all the hyenas.

The biggest of them all, the spotted hyena! | dangdumrong via Getty Images

They have a body length of about 95 to 165.8 centimeters (37.4 to 65.3 inches) and are about 70 to 91.5 centimeters (27.6 to 36.0 inches) tall on average. 

Males of this species typically weigh between 40 and 55 kilograms (89–121 pounds).

Females are slightly larger, with an average weight of about 44 to 64 kilograms (98 to 141 pounds).

Brown hyenas weigh 40 to 43 kilograms (89–96 pounds), while the average weight of the striped hyenas is about 22 to 55 kilograms (49 to 121 pounds). 

Aardwolves are the smallest species within this family, with an average weight of about seven to ten kilograms (15–22 pounds). 

All hyenas except the spotted hyena have striped coats. 

This is an adaptation carried over from their ferret-like ancestors with similar striped coats. 

Spotted hyenas, on the other hand, have black spots covering their sandy-colored fur. 

The base color of other species varies from brown or grayish brown for the brown hyenas to a grayish coat for the striped hyena and a light yellowish coat for the aardwolves. 

Habitat and Distribution

Hyenas are adaptable carnivores, and they can be found in a range of habitats. 

They’re native to Africa, but a few individuals of certain species are found in Asia. 

Spotted hyenas are the most widespread hyena species. 

They are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including countries like Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, where they live in open woodlands, grasslands, and savannahs. 

Brown hyenas are known for their adaptability to drier conditions compared to other hyena species. 

They’re primarily found in countries in southern Africa, including Namibia, South Africa, and parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Aardwolves have a similar distribution as brown hyenas, as they’re also present in South Africa. 

An Aardwolf comes out at sunset to forage in Southern Africa | Catherine Withers-Clarke via Getty Images

However, a few also live in the open, dry plains and bushland of East and North-east Africa. 

Striped hyenas have a wide distribution that extends into parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. 

They can be found in India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Egypt.

Striped hyenas live in a variety of habitats in these countries. 

This includes arid deserts, grasslands, and open woodlands. 

Because of their widespread distribution, there are slight variations in the appearance of striped hyenas across the different locations where they’re found. 

Behavior and Social Structure

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) and reflection splashing across a lake shoreline | KenCanning via Getty Images

Hyenas are active carnivores and efficient hunters.  

They have excellent hearing and sharp eyesight, especially at night.

Consequently, they’re nocturnal animals, more active at night than during the day. 

Hyenas are quick on their feet and can run for long distances without getting tired. 

They’re intelligent hunters known to hunt prey in packs that work collaboratively to isolate herding animals. 

Hyenas are territorial animals. 

Most species maintain territories that can vary in size based on food availability and resources. 

They mark off territories with communal latrines and scent markings. 

Their social structure depends on the species in question. 

Aardwolves, for instance, don’t have well-defined territories and are not very social. 

Brown and striped hyenas are also not very territorial and may roam over larger areas in search of food.

The acclaimed striped hyena | ePhotocorp via Getty Images

Striped hyenas typically live alone or in pairs, while brown hyenas may form small family groups that consist of a mated pair and their offspring. 

Spotted hyenas are the most social of all hyena species. 

In fact, they have the most complex social behavior of all carnivorous mammals. 

Spotted hyenas live in highly structured social systems known as clans, which may consist of up to 80 individuals. 

Spotted hyena clans are led by a dominant female, and there is a strict dominance hierarchy within every clan. 

Females typically outrank males, which means the lowest-ranking female is still higher in rank than the highest-ranking male. 

New cubs automatically take the rank below their mother, which means the youngest female cub will take over as the clan leader if her mother dies. 

Clans are known for their complex social interactions, including cooperative hunting and communal denning.

Hyenas communicate using vocalizations, including wailing calls, howling screams, and the famous “laughter,” which they use to alert other clan members when they find food. 

Their vocalizations are loud and can be heard from distances of up to five kilometers (three miles) away. 

Diet and Feeding

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) scavaging a carcass | KenCanning via Getty Images

The diet of the hyenas is one of the most misunderstood aspects of their behavior. 

A common misconception about them is that they’re primarily scavengers. 

This isn’t entirely accurate since some hyena species kill up to 70% of their meals themselves. 

This is particularly true for the spotted hyena, which qualifies as one of Africa’s top predators and is capable of hunting animals of varying sizes. 

Spotted hyenas use a combination of stealth, teamwork, and endurance to chase and take down large prey. 

They can chase prey at speeds of up to 65 kilometers per hour (40 miles per hour), running continuously for up to three kilometers to wear down prey. 

Hyenas hunt large animals like wildebeest, antelopes, and zebras.

The scavenger label sticks for other species of hyenas (brown and striped hyenas). 

They feed on carcasses, including already decomposing carrion. 

Close-up wild spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) standing over a recent wildebeest wildlife kill. | GomezDavid via Getty Images

Thanks to powerful, bone-crushing jaws and teeth, hyenas can feed on various animal parts, including bones, ligaments, and cartilage. 

Hyenas have one of the most robust jaws of all mammals compared to their body size. 

Their stomach also contains concentrated hydrochloric acid, which helps them process and extract nutrients from tough skin and bones. 

The only parts of prey that they cannot fully digest are their hair, hooves, and horns.

They still ingest these hard parts but will regurgitate undigested parts as pellets. 

But even scavenging hyena species can also hunt small prey given the opportunity. 

Aardwolves have the most specialized diet of all the hyena species. 

They do not eat flesh or hunt prey. 

Instead, they have an insectivorous diet, with specialized tongues effective for lapping up termites and other insects.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Hyena with their young | pjmalsbury via Getty Images

One of the most intriguing aspects of the hyena’s life is its reproduction.

In the past, hyenas were assumed to be hermaphrodites. 

This is because female hyenas have bizarre genitalia, unlike that of any other mammal.  

Their clitoris is up to eight inches long, and its shape and position are exactly like a male penis, which is why it is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-penis. 

The labia are also fused and filled with fatty tissue, which makes it appear like they have a pair of testicles, just like males. 

The hyena is the only mammal that has no vaginal opening. 

To mate, the female retracts her pseudo penis and creates an opening through which the male inserts his penis.

Hyenas are pregnant for about 90 to 110 days, depending on the species. 

Without a vaginal opening, female hyenas also have to give birth through their pseudo penis. 

This precarious situation is comparable to squeezing a cantaloupe through a hose pipe. 

Two hyenas mating in Tanzania | Pascale Gueret via Getty Images

About ten percent of hyena females die in childbirth, and up to 60 percent of cubs suffocate on their way out. 

Hyenas typically give birth to a litter of two to four cubs. 

They exhibit parental care, with cubs staying with their mothers for several months. 

Hyena cubs are born fully developed with their eyes open and teeth ready to bite.

Although they can eat meat as early as five months, most cubs are suckled by their mothers for up to 18 months. 

This is an unusually long time for a carnivore. 

But suckling their young this way is necessary because most hyenas make their kill far from the den, and hyenas cannot regurgitate food for their young like other carnivores. 

Juvenile hyenas start following their mother on hunting trips when they’re about a year old. 

Females remain with the clan after maturity, but males typically leave when they’re about two years old.

Ecological Role and Interactions

Hyenas devouring gnu after chasing away the lioness that killed it | Richmatts via Getty Images

Hyenas (especially spotted hyenas) are top predators in many African ecosystems. 

They play a crucial role in controlling prey populations, particularly that of large herbivores such as wildebeest, antelopes, and zebras. 

Like other carnivores, they mainly target weak, injured, or old individuals, therefore contributing to the health and stability of prey populations.

Hyenas are skilled scavengers and play a vital role in cleaning up carrion. 

They antagonize other large predators like lions, and leopards have been known to steal prey from them. 

Their scavenging activities also help to clean up parts of carcasses that other predators cannot digest, such as bones, tough hide, and hoof. 

Feeding on carrion this way also helps to prevent the spread of dangerous pathogens within their ecosystem. 

Conservation Status and Threats

A closeup of a Spotted Hyena | Ryan Green via Getty Images

The conservation status of hyenas varies depending on the species,

The spotted hyena is still relatively abundant within their geographic range and is listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals

Aardwolves have similar population trends and are listed as “least concern” as well. 

Brown and striped hyenas, on the other hand, are classified as near threatened, with a decreasing population trend. 

Hyenas face various threats, most of which are caused by human factors. 

Hyena populations close to human settlements are often accused of killing goats, sheep, chickens, and other livestock. 

Although they are often accused of attacking people, studies show that hyena attacks are less common compared to attacks by other carnivores such as wolves, leopards, lions, and tigers. 

What did you do to make it growl? | vndrpttn via Getty Images

Despite what the scientific data shows, hyenas already have a bad reputation, leading to conflicts with humans across various locations. 

Retaliatory killings of hyenas by farmers are quite common in various parts of Africa. 

It remains one of the major threats to hyena populations. 

They are also threatened by habitat loss due to agriculture, human development, and other changes to land use. 

Conservation organizations and government agencies are working tediously to protect hyena species. 

Some of the efforts being put in place include the designation of protected areas to protect hyena habitats. 

Efforts to reduce human-wildlife conflicts, such as compensation schemes for livestock losses and farmer education, are also in place to mitigate retaliatory killings of hyenas.

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

The spotted hyena’s teeth and jaw | Gerald Corsi via Getty Images

Hyenas have powerful jaws and teeth. 

Their premolars are specially adapted for crushing bones, allowing them to access bone marrow and other hard parts of prey often left behind by other predators.  

This adaptation is critical for their survival, especially when food sources are scarce. 

They also have powerful stomach acids that can dissolve bone fragments that form the bulk of their diet. 

Hyenas are also known for their remarkable stamina. 

Hyena running through the safari | jacobeukman via Getty Images

They can chase prey for long distances, even in the heat of the day. 

This adaptation helps them wear down large prey so they can easily kill them. 

Hyenas are among the most intelligent carnivores. 

They form complex family structures and are known to hunt cooperatively to take down large prey. 

This intelligence is also valuable for out-competing other scavengers and predators within the ecosystem. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Hyenas have both positive and negative reputations across various African and Asian cultures. 

Some African tribes see them as powerful and spiritually significant animals with the ability to communicate with the spirit world.

The supernatural abilities of these creatures are celebrated in many indigenous folklore and myths. 

But hyenas are seen in a more negative light in some cultures. 

They are treated with disdain because of their scavenging habits and their reputation as thieves who steal the prey of other animals. 

Are hyenas bad luck? | rkraan via Getty Images

In some societies, hyenas are seen as omens of bad luck or evil spirits.

The hyena’s unique vocalization, which resembles hysterical human laughter, is one of their most talked-about attributes and has been alluded to in several works of literature. 

While hyenas are not typically domesticated, people have attempted to keep hyenas as pets or for entertainment. 

The Hyena Men of Nigeria are particularly renowned for this. 

Predominantly comprised of Hausa men (one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa), this traveling circus travels from city to city to perform with their pack of wild hyenas. 

Future Prospects and Research

Group of hyenas and vultures eating the remains of an animal | robru via Getty Images

Ongoing studies continue to delve into various aspects of the hyena’s complex behavior. 

Researchers are particularly interested in understanding the dynamics of their social system, hierarchies, and the complex relationships among clan members. 

Research like this will have varying implications for our understanding of social evolution in carnivores.

Because of their status as scavengers, there’s a need to examine disease transmission dynamics involving hyenas. 

This is particularly important in areas where hyenas interact with domestic animals or humans. 

Understanding the role of hyenas in disease transmission can have implications for both wildlife and human health in the long run.


Hyenas are famous as scavengers with a reputation for stealing prey and leftovers from other predators. 

But a closer look at them shows they’re more intriguing than initially thought, and many aspects of their behavior are still widely misunderstood. 

Hyenas are not always thieving scavengers. 

They’re powerful predators capable of hunting their own prey. 

But even as scavengers, hyenas play an important role in getting rid of bones and other animal materials that other predators cannot eat. 

This speeds up the rate of nutrient cycling and cleans up the environment. 

Of course, many aspects of their life, such as their reproduction, lifecycle, and social interactions, are still quite bizarre, and we’ll need to study them more to further understand them. 


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