Spotted hyenas are bucking the trend for large carnivores being in decline. Niki Rust explores why.
Niki is a carnivore conservationist. In this issue she writes about one of her favourite animals, the spotted hyena. “They get a bad rap but for no good reason,” she says.
You don’t often get to eat dinner next to one of Africa’s most ferocious predators. The tantalising smell of roasting meat from numerous barbecues had lured several of the impressive mammals to our South African tourist camp, and they prowled outside looking for an easy meal. So what is a naive wildlife conservationist to do when faced with the prospect of eating her butternut squash in the presence of a spotted hyena? Invite it to tea, of course. I just had to figure out how to communicate in the language of Crocuta crocuta.
A light bulb went on in my head: I remembered learning that repeated short whoops are a hyena rally call when an individual needs back-up from the rest of its clan. As I whooped into the blackness of the Kruger night, a solitary hyena came trotting over, right on cue. Even though I knew there was a impassable, chain-linked fence between us, a deep sense of bewilderment came over me as this formidable 60kg carnivore stared at me from just 2m away.
It’s never a good idea to feed any wild animal, particularly ones that can crunch through bones the way squirrels eat nuts, so I did not share my veggie meal with my wild companion. Instead, we sat there for a few moments trying to figure each other out. As I gazed into the hyena’s dark brown eyes, I couldn’t help but think that this magnificent creature deserved a lot more respect than we currently give its kind.
Hyenas have a bad reputation – but do they deserve it? As intelligent, highly social creatures, spotted hyenas have found a way to adapt to life in the African savannah like no other animal. While many large carnivore populations are declining globally, spotted hyenas do not seem to have suffered quite so significantly. I wanted to find out why.
ADAPT TO SUCCEED
Spotted hyenas have been given a ‘Least Concern’ classification by the IUCN, with a total population anywhere between 27,000 and 47,000 strong, making them the most abundant large carnivores in Africa. There are a number of possible reasons why they’re faring relatively well. It could be because of their highly social clan life, though that wouldn’t explain why they are doing better than equally social lions or African wild dogs. Alternatively, it could be down to a superior way of hunting, or because they’re more adaptable than other social large carnivores. I needed to speak to some predator experts to learn more.
Amy Dickman, a lion conservationist in Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), explains that lions hunt by stalking followed by a quick chase. “You will see lions give up a hunt fairly easily if the initial charge is unsuccessful, while hyenas continue chasing prey at speed for long distances – often several kilometres – and wearing it down,” she says. This might be significant.
Spotted hyenas are built for endurance. Their huge
AS I WHOOPED INTO THE KRUGER NIGHT, A SOLITARY HYENA CAME TROTTING OVER, RIGHT ON CUE.
hearts, accounting for up to one per cent of their body weight, are comparably far heavier than those of lions, which make up only 0.5 per cent. This is what enables hyenas to run long distances without getting tired. So the first clue as to why spotted hyenas are faring better than lions could be that they have a different hunting tactic, in part due to their physiology.
Fans of African wild dogs may at this point be thinking that an endurance chase is exactly the style of hunting that these canids use. Packs of wild dogs can run for miles without getting tired. Like a relay race, lead sprinters will run in front for a while, then will be replaced by other pack members when they become tired, as seen to dramatic effect a while ago in BBC One’s The Hunt.
Wild dogs also depend heavily on the rest of their pack when it comes to hunting. Although spotted hyenas live in big groups, they hunt alone or in clusters of two or three, whereas wild dogs invariably work as a pack to take down large prey. Teamwork is the key to why wild dogs are so successful at hunting.
“Wild dogs are generally considered the most successful hunters,” says Dani Rabaiotti of the Zoological Society of London, an expert on the species. “They have success rates of 40 per cent when taking down adult wildebeest. This is higher than spotted hyenas that have a hunting success rate of around 30–35 per cent. Even when lions hunt in groups, their hit rate is usually thought to be only around 30 per cent.”
So it can’t just be the spotted hyenas’ hunting tactics that leave them better off than the continent’s other large carnivores, as African wild dogs are arguably better at hunting. There must be more to it than that.
Adaptability may come into it. The likelihood of hunting success increases when spotted hyenas work together as a team, but because they can also hunt alone and don’t necessarily depend on each other, this makes them more flexible. They can take down larger prey such as wildebeest and zebras when hunting as a group, and when hunting alone switch to targeting smaller prey – impala and springbok, for example.
The highly social nature of spotted hyenas could be helping to sustain their populations in other ways too, since they seem to be immune to many diseases. Having built up some resistance to rabies, canine distemper, anthrax and streptococcus, they do not suffer from disease outbreaks as much as African wild dogs and lions. “Spotted hyenas that live at a high density nsity and constantly interact through exchanging saliva, va, keep each other’s immune systems boosted and full of antibodies,” says Arjun Dheer, a hyena expert at t the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. ch. “This can offer a protective effect against pathogens.” ns.”
Hyenas have yet another trick up their sleeve. Zazu the hornbill may y have described them as “slobbering, mangy, stupid poachers” oachers” in The Lion King, but new research is showing wing just how clever they are. Professor Kay Holekamp of Michigan State University has been studying spotted d hyenas for over two decades and has discovered that hat the species is in certain respects as intelligent as primates. Spotted hyenas actually outcompete chimpanzees mpanzees in some cognitive challenges. When en given a team task where two
SPOTTED HYENAS CAN ACTUALLY OUTCOMPETE CHIMPANZEES IN SOME COGNITIVE CHALLENGES.
individuals must work together to tug two ropes to obtain a food reward, the hyenas cooperated and problem-solved far better than non-human primates.
And spotted hyenas can even count. If you play them unfamiliar whooping calls, they respond differently to the sound of one, two or three individuals. Some researchers think they can even count up to six or seven. This skill may help hyenas to judge the size of non-familiar groups to tell whether it’s worth trying to steal a kill.
What about diet? Here too, spotted hyenas prove more adaptable than lions or African wild dogs, having been seen eating a vast array of animals ranging from tortoises to young elephants. Such a flexible diet helps them to thrive in many different habitats. They’ve even colonised the Ethiopian city of Harar, scaveng scavenging livestock carcasses.
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 jaw can bite through a zebra’s femur with ease. But they don’t just suck out the nutritious marrow – they also consume so some of the bone itself, which is excreted as a white powder. T This bone-crunching helps to dispose of carcasses and ena enables other scavengers and decomposers to reach otherwis otherwise inaccessible parts of the anatomy so that entire carcasse carcasses are utilised and recycled.
Spotted hyenas also scavenge 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 Kr Kruuk showed that it’s actually the lions doing most of the stealing. Play recordings of
hyenas eating to lion 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. Far from being “mangy poachers”, spotted hyenas suffer less from disease than many large predators, have complex problem-solving abilities and are more proficient hunters than lions. And for that I think they deserve our respect.
HYENA HEARING IS SO WELL ATTUNED THEY CAN HEAR PREDATORS KILLING PREY UP TO 10KM AWAY.
Even when alone, a spotted hyena keeps in touch with other members of its clan with whoops, yells and a manic cackle, which gave rise to its other name, laughing hyena.
Above: the spotted hyena is named after its dark spots, which fade with age. Below: African wild dogs rely heavily on the rest of their pack when hunting, whereas hyenas can hunt alone or collectively to take down prey.
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.