The four different hyena species are almost as diverse as they are alike, with notable differences in habitat, diet, and even characteristics.
Here is a look at the distinctive features of each species.
The Spotted Hyena
This is the largest species of hyena. Interestingly, the male spotted hyena is 10% smaller than the female. Spotted hyenas are, on average, 77 to 81cm long, and weigh between 40 and 86kgs.
The spotted hyena has a short brown/greyish coat with black spots. It has hair on its neck that slopes forward or stands vertically when the hyena is excited.
The Brown Hyena
These are the second largest hyenas, weighing anywhere between 34 and 72kgs. Their main distinguishing factor from other hyenas is their long, black/brownish shaggy hair.
The hair on their body is relatively shorter than the hair on their neck that grows to 12 inches.
The Striped Hyena
The striped hyena is 100 to 115 cm tall from paw to shoulder and has a tail that can be as long as 40cm.
These hyenas have grey or brownish colored hair and a black muzzle. They get their name from the black stripes on their torso, legs, and head.
These are the smallest species of hyena. They weigh between 8 and 14kgs and measure up to 105 cm. Size aside, an aardwolf resembles the striped hyena in color and fur texture.
Range & habitat
Different species of hyenas live in slightly varying habitat, adding up to an estimated 10,000 adult mammals cumulatively.
Aardwolves live in open, dry bushland and plains and restrict themselves to areas with significant reserves of termites.
Spotted hyenas prefer semi-desserts, woodlands, savannahs, and mountainous areas.
On the other hand, Brown hyenas live in savannahs, desserts, and semi desserts, while striped hyenas are found in scrub woodlands and mountains.
Today, different species of hyena can be found in the Middles East and Africa. Aardwolves can be found in Southern and East and North East Africa.
Spotted hyenas are found in Sub Saharan Africa to Northern Southern Africa in Chad, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, Botswana, and parts of South Africa.
Striped hyenas can be found in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Hyenas range in diet as much as they range in habitat.
Aardwolves are mostly insectivorous, feeding primarily on termites. Although termites secrete a toxin, it does not seem to affect aardwolves in any way. These hyenas can consume up to 30,000 termites per night.
The other hyena species are carnivores.
Spotted hyenas are predatory mammals and hunt for survival. They prey on antelopes, wildebeest, hippos, lizards, fish, foxes, and insects. They also feed on eggs.
For the Spotted hyenas, the size of prey depends on how many hyenas are in a clan. The more members there are, the more confident they are about hunting down larger prey.
Brown and striped hyenas are scavengers and are happy feasting on carcasses in different stages of decomposition.
Hyenas eat almost everything on their prey, including bones and hooves.
Behaviour & lifestyle
Hyenas are social animals that live in groups called clans. A single clan can have as many as 80 members.
Mating among hyenas typically happens outside the individual clan, but it only happens after a courtship period of about seven days.
Female hyenas give birth to between two and four young ones, known as cubs.
Mothers in a clan then share the responsibility for rearing cubs as other members go out to hunt. Mothers even nurse each other’s cubs when the respective members are away.
Cubs nurse for a year and eat nothing but their mother’s milk for the first six months of their lives. They are considered mature after two years.
Fun hyena facts
Here are ten interesting facts about the hyena.
- The female hyena is bigger, more aggressive and more muscular than the male
- Female hyenas have more testosterone than males
- Hyenas are excellent communicators, using various cues to send messages and accomplish group tasks efficiently
- Hyenas are not related to dogs
- Despite being known as a ‘laugh,’ the laughing sound hyenas make is not actually joyous, but a nervous excitement or submission to another hyena
- Not all hyenas make the laughing sound; striped hyenas communicate using body movement and make no sounds at all
- Unlike lions, which are the top of the pecking order, male hyenas fight for space from aggressive females and are the bottom of hyena’s packs
- A hyena’s heart is double that of other mammals its size
- Of all predators, the hyena is the only one with a jaw strong enough to rip not only elephant hide, but to crush elephant bone
- Jaw strength aside, hyenas can digest animal parts that most other predators cant, including the skin
Hyenas never seem to get any good press and often get painted as the antithesis of beautiful and graceful wildlife. They have been hated on and ridiculed for as long as they have been in existence, but maybe things will change someday.
Meet the hyena
Did you enjoy learning more about the hyena? Have you ever met this unique creature face-to-face? Tell us about your hyena experience in the comment section below. Because those who care share!
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