It’s complicated: Hyena social dynamics and other interesting facts

Posted by David Henning on 30 July 2021

Hyenas are some of the most misunderstood species with stories portraying them as ruthless scavengers, such as the unsavoury portrayals in ‘The Lion King’. Actually, they have complex social relationships and those who work closely with them think of them differently, so let’s set the record straight.

Hyenas, or the Hyenida family are classified into four different species: The striped hyena, spotted hyena, brown hyena and the small termite eating mammal, the aardwolf. Spotted hyenas are the most prevalent and regarded as one of the most significant predators in the African Savanah.

They tend to live in large female-dominated social groups called clans which display complex behavioural patterns that are parallel to some species of primates. Studies on spotted hyenas revealed that female adult breeds and the clan are organised in different subgroups of mothers, daughters and offspring.

Female hyenas are stellar mothers, investing more time in their cubs than most carnivores. They nurse cubs for two years and play-wrestle with their offspring for hours at a time; a trait that is usually associated with the more sophisticated primate species.

Adult males tend to enter the group from other clans, subservient to the resident females. Contrary to popular belief, hyenas are not only scavengers but are well-accomplished hunters capable of taking down a buffalo whose meal is more likely to be stolen by lions.

A recent study uncovered that hyenas can also be clicky, developing close social bonds with the same families as the mothers, across generations. Cubs tended to inherit their mother’s social network. This was found out after 27 years of observing a single clan in Kenya.

The researchers observed that once the young spent less time close to their mother, they maintained the same social networks, particularly with females who remain in the clan for life.

With life-long friendships and a complex social fabric, they are one of the most socially complex carnivore groups in the world.

Conservation Status

As a result of habitat loss and widespread hunting, striped and brown hyenas are classified as near-threatened IUCN Red List of endangered species. Although spotted hyenas are listed as ‘of least concern,’ they have gone locally extinct in much of South Africa.

A young hyena in Victoria Falls National Park with a snare suck around its neck. Hyenas fall victim to human-wildlife conflict such as predator control mechanisms. Picture: Anton Crone

Their dwindling habitat and human-wildlife conflict are threats to these hyenas. Their most stable populations are located in southern Africa. Only 5,000 to 8,000 brown hyenas today roam parts of sub-Saharan Africa. With regards to spotted hyenas, there are an estimated 47 000 left, faring much better because of their ability to adapt near humans.

There is the IUCN’s Hyena Specialist Group focusing on developing hyena conservation strategies worldwide along with public education to change the perception of these animals.

Take a look at these spectacular photographs taken by our editor Anton Crone.




Interesting Facts

  • Spotted hyenas can run up to 60km/hand while working in an organised pack can take down prey as large as buffalo.
  • They are adept hunters, killing 66-90% of the food they eat.
  • They have extremely powerful jaws, superior to that of other mammals and capable of crushing bones.
  • They live surprisingly longer than other dogs, with spotted hyenas often reaching living into their 20s in the wild.
  • They communicate vocally, largely due to their complex social system. renowned for the laughs, it’s more an expression of anxiety.

Also Read:

Interesting facts about our favourite painted predator: The African wild dog


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