The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), also called the laughing hyena, is an extant hyena species and is classified as the only member of the genus Crocuta, found in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is classified as least concern on the IUCN list due to its widespread population and range, estimated between 27,000 – 47,000 individuals.
However, the species is experiencing declines due to poaching or habitat loss outside protected areas. The species is assumed to have originated from Asia and once travelled through Europe for at least one million years (mya) until the end of the Late Pleistocene.
The spotted hyena is known to be the largest known member of the family Hyaenidae. It is distinct from other species by its rounded ears, vaguely bear-like build, its spotted pelt, its less prominent mane, its fewer nipples, its dual proposed dentition, and the existence of a pseudo-penis in the female. It is the only known mammalian species to lack a vaginal opening.
The spotted hyena is the most social in the order Carnivora and also has the most complex social behaviours and largest group sizes. Its social organization is different from other carnivores, in which it bears a closer resemblance to that of cercopithecine primates (macaques and baboons).
This resemblance is in respect to a hierarchical structure, group size, and frequency of social interaction among both unrelated group-mate & kin. However, the spotted hyena’s social system is more competitive than co-operative, with mating opportunities, access to kills, and the time dispersal for males depends on the ability to dominate other clan-members.
Females do not assist each other, and they care only for their cubs, while males show no paternal care. Spotted hyena societies are known to be matriarchal, where the females are larger than the males and also dominate them.
Known as the most common large carnivore in Africa, the spotted hyena is one of the most successful animals, and its success rate is due to its opportunism and adaptability. It is a basic hunter but may also scavenge if needed, and it can eat and digest almost anything associated with meat which includes bones, skin, and other animal waste.
The spotted hyena shows greater plasticity in its foraging behavior and hunting than most carnivores. Spotted hyenas hunt in small groups of 2 to 5 individuals or large groups.
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The spotted hyena has a well developed & strong forequarters and neck but has fairly underdeveloped hindquarters. The rump is more round than angular, preventing attackers from getting a firm grip on it from behind.
The head of a spotted hyena is wide and flat with a broad rhinarium and blunt muzzle. Unlike the striped hyena, the ears of the spotted are not pointed but rather round.
Each foot has four digits, which are webbed and armed with stout, short, blunt paws. The paw-pads are very flat and relatively broad, with the whole undersurface of the foot being naked.
The tail is relatively short, being 12 to 14 in (300 to 350 mm) long, and resembles a pompom. The female spotted hyena is larger than the male, which is unusual among both mammals and hyaenids.
Both the male and female have a pair of anal glands that secrete a white, creamy substance, which is pasted onto grass stalks. The secretion has a very strong odour that gives off the smell of boiling cheap soap or burning and can be detected by humans several miles away.
Compared to the striped hyena, the skull of the spotted hyena has a narrower sagittal crest and is much greater in size. The spotted is known to have one of the most powerfully built skulls among the order Carnivora. The spotted hyena has carnassials, which is found behind its bone-crushing premolars.
Spotted hyenas have special vaulting to protect the skull against large forces and large jaw muscles. These traits give the spotted hyena a powerful bite, which can exert a pressure of 1,140 lbf/in2 (80 kgf/cm2), 40% more than what a leopard can generate.
A 139 lb (63.1 kg) spotted hyena is estimated to have a bite force of 985.5 newtons at the carnassials eocone and 565.7 newtons at the canine tip. Adults measure 37 to 65 in (95 to 165.8 cm) in body length and have a shoulder height of 28 to 36 in (70 to 91.5 cm).
Adult male spotted hyenas in the Serengeti weigh 89 to 121 lb (40.5 to 55.0 kg), while females weigh 98 to 141 lb (44.5 to 63.9). Spotted hyenas in Zambia tend to weigh more, with males weighing 149 lb (67.6 kg), and females 153 lb (69.2 kg). Exceptionally large weights of 180 lb (81.7 kg) and 198 lb (90 kg) are known.
It is assumed that adult members of the now-extinct Eurasian populations weighed 225 lb (102 kg). Fur colour changes with age and varies greatly.
Distinct from the fur of the brown and striped hyena, that of the spotted hyena does not consist of stripes but rather spots and is much shorter.
The base colour of the coat is yellowish-grey or pale grayish-brown, with an irregular pattern of spots superimposed on the hindquarter and back.
The spots, which are of variable distinction, maybe deep brown, reddish, or almost blackish. The spots vary in size and depend on the individual, but are commonly 0.79 in (20 mm) in diameter.
A less distinct spot pattern is present on the belly and the legs but not on the chest and throat.
The spotted hyena is a well known non-seasonal breeder. With oestrus period lasting two weeks, the female spotted hyenas are polyestrous. Similar to other feliform species, the spotted hyena is promiscuous, and they form no pair bonds.
A male becomes submissive when approaching a female in heat, even though it outweighs the female. Passive males tend to have a better success rate in courting females than aggressive ones. Copulation in spotted hyena occurs at night with no other hyena around and is relatively short, lasting for about 4 to 12 minutes.
The mating process is different from other mammals. The male insert the penis into the female’s reproductive tract, which is the pseudo-penis instead of the vagina.
These unusual traits make mating more labourious for the male than in other mammals. The mating may occur multiple times for several hours, and both partners lick their genitals for several minutes after mating.
The gestation period lasts for at least 110 days. In the final stages of pregnancy, the dominant females provide higher levels of androgen for their developing offspring than lower-ranking mothers do. The higher the level of androgen, the higher the concentration of ovarian androstenedione.
These are thought to be responsible for the extreme masculinisation of female morphology and behavior. The result tends to make the cubs of the dominant female more sexually active and aggressive than lower-ranking hyenas.
The average number of cubs in a litter is two, with three cubs rarely reported, and males show no paternal care. Female spotted hyenas experience great difficultly when giving birth, and this is due to their narrow clitoris.
Cubs weigh 1.5 kb on average and are born with soft, brownish-black hair. Distinct from other carnivorous mammals, spotted hyena cubs are born with their eyes open and with 4 mm long incisors and 6 to 7 mm long canines.
Cubs become violent towards each other shortly after their birth, resulting in the death of the weaker cub. Lactating females can carry 6.6 to 8.8 lb (3 to 4 kg) of milk in their udders.
Spotted hyena milk has the highest fat and protein content of any terrestrial carnivore. The mother nurses the cubs for 12 to 16 months, though the cub at three months of age can process solid food.
Females do not tolerate any other adult, especially males, to approach their cubs. At 2 – 3 months, the cubs begin to lose the black coat and display the spotted, lighter coloured pelage of the adults.
Cubs begin to express hunting behaviours at the age of eight months and begin hunting in groups after their first year. The sexual maturity mark of the spotted hyena is said to be at three years of age.
The lifespan of a spotted in the wild is 25 years, and in captivity, they can live up to 40 years.
The most common medium-sized ungulate taken by a spotted hyena in both Serengeti and Ngorongoro is the wildebeest, then Thomson’s gazelles and zebra come in behind. In Kruger National Park, Cape buffalo, blue wildebeest, impala, and greater kudu are the spotted hyena’s most important prey.
While the main sources of food in the Timbavati are impala, giraffe, zebra, and wildebeest are. Kudu and springbok are the main prey in Namib and Namibia’s Etosha National Park. In the southern Kalahari, wildebeest, gemsbok, and springbok are the principal prey.
In West Africa, the spotted hyena is primarily a scavenger who will occasionally attack medium-sized antelopes and domestic stocks in some areas. In Cameroon, it is common for a spotted hyena to scavenge on kongoni, reedbuck, buffalo, African elephant, giraffe, roan antelope, and topi carcasses and also hunt small antelopes like kob.
In Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, spotted hyenas prey on wildebeest, followed by zebra, buffalo, giraffe, impala, kongoni, and reedbuck. In Uganda, it is assumed that the spotted hyena primarily preys on reptiles and birds while considered a scavenger in Zambia.
The spotted hyena is known to have various rivals or competitors, in which it struggles for food, water, habitat, and many more. The competitors include:
- Leopards and cheetahs
- African wild dogs
- Wolves and jackals
- Other hyena species
The spotted hyenas are also known to communicate through various sounds and grunts. They also use body language, which consists of various sets of posture.
The sound spotted hyenas uses include:
- Fast whoop
- Soft grunt-laugh
- Loud grunt-laugh
- Soft squeal
The species dwell in savannah, semi-desert, dense, dry woodland, open woodland, and mountainous forest up to 4,000 m in altitude. It is absent or scarce in coastal and tropical rainforests areas.
Its preferred habitats in West Africa, including Sudan and Guinea savannahs, and is absent in the belt of coastal forest.
There are a continuous distribution over large regions of Kenya, Namibia, Ethiopia, Botswana, Tanzania, and the Transvaal Lowveld areas of South Africa. In the Namib Desert, it occurs in the sub-desertic pro-Namib, riverine growth along seasonal rivers, and the adjoining inland plateau.