UNLOVED AND UNDERSTUDIED
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