UNLOVED AND UNDERSTUDIED

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Nature - Niki Rust works on car­ni­vore con­ser­va­tion and hu­man-wildlife con­flict at WWF; wwf.panda.org

Spot­ted hye­nas have long been the un­der­dogs of the preda­tor world. Not only are they bot­tom of the list of large car­ni­vores that tourists want to see on sa­fari, but they’re also less stud­ied. Car­ni­vore bi­ol­o­gist Stephanie Dol­renry feels that this could be be­cause wild fe­lids and canids, such as lions, chee­tahs and African wild dogs, feel more fa­mil­iar to us, whereas hye­nas are pretty odd look­ing. “Their mor­phol­ogy is ‘weird’, with fe­males hav­ing very male-like gen­i­talia,” she says. Ad­mit­tedly, the pop­u­la­tions of lions, chee­tahs and wild dogs are lower and in more trou­ble but, even so, the dis­par­ity is strik­ing. As spot­ted hye­nas are among only a few species in Africa able to break open bones, they play an im­por­tant role in ecosys­tems. Their pow­er­ful jaws can bite through a ze­bra’s fe­mur with ease. But they don’t just suck out the nu­tri­tious mar­row – they also con­sume some of the bone it­self, which is ex­creted as a white pow­der. This bone-crunch­ing helps to dis­pose of car­casses and en­ables other scav­engers and de­com­posers to reach oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble parts of the anatomy so that en­tire car­casses are utilised and re­cy­cled.

Spot­ted hye­nas also scav­enge, al­beit not quite as much as le­gends sug­gest. It was once thought that the species re­lied on scav­eng­ing lion kills, but this was dis­proven in the 1970s when nat­u­ral­ist Hans Kruuk showed that it’s ac­tu­ally the lions do­ing

most of the steal­ing. Play record­ings of hye­nas eat­ing to lions and the big cats will stop what they’re do­ing to fol­low the sound to see if they can pil­fer food. In Tanzania’s Ngoron­goro Crater, hyena kills are the main source of food for some lion prides.

Though their rep­u­ta­tion as idle scav­engers is un­de­served, hye­nas nev­er­the­less won’t turn down a free meal. Dur­ing the day they will scan the hori­zon, look­ing for cir­cling vul­tures. Their hear­ing is so well attuned to the sound of death that they can hear preda­tors killing prey or feed­ing off car­casses up to 10km away.

Hav­ing lo­cated a car­cass, the hye­nas will as­sess if there’s a chance of oust­ing the cur­rent din­ers. They base their cal­cu­la­tions on the type and num­ber of ri­val preda­tors ver­sus the size of their group. Lion kills are only pil­laged when they out­num­ber the cats 4:1, but they won’t risk it if male lions are present. They can ex­pel any chee­tah from a kill, but are more care­ful around African wild dog packs.

The abil­ity of spot­ted hye­nas to gauge whether they can steal some­one else’s din­ner proved to be an im­por­tant les­son while I was on sa­fari in South Africa. As we fin­ished off our ‘sun­down­ers’ in beau­ti­ful Sabi Sands Game Re­serve, we were pack­ing up to head back to camp. Be­fore leav­ing, a guest de­cided to use the ‘bush toi­let’.

Sud­denly I no­ticed a spot­ted hyena ap­pear from be­hind a rock. The nosy crea­ture started to make a bee­line for the poor lady, by now mid-pee. Gath­er­ing some troops to­gether, we be­gan to walk to­wards her, shout­ing and wav­ing our hands. Thank­fully, the hyena saw that it was too risky to take down this woman now that she had back-up from another 10 mem­bers of her pack. Les­son learned: when you’re in the land of hye­nas and are caught with your pants down, make sure a big group of friends has got your back.

So a win­ning blend of brains and brawn seems to be the se­cret of spot­ted hye­nas’ suc­cess. They outcompete more adept hunters like African wild dogs by sheer brute strength, while far­ing bet­ter than lions be­cause they’re more adapt­able and bet­ter able to live along­side hu­mans.

HYENA HEAR­ING IS SO WELL

ATTUNED THEY CAN HEAR PREDA­TORS KILLING PREY UP

TO 10KM AWAY.

Co­op­er­a­tion can im­prove the hunt­ing suc­cess of spot­ted hye­nas – but this de­pendson prey avail­abil­ity

Spot­ted hye­nas live in clans and fre­quently hunt in groups

ABOVE: Vul­tures help hye­nas and other species to find a meal. The tell-tale cir­cling of the birds shows the car­ni­vores where to lo­cate dead an­i­mals

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