Spotted hyenas are fascinating and highly social carnivores found in various parts of Africa. Unfortunately, Walt Disney’s movie The Lion King dealt them a bad hand, as many people now view them as “bad guys.” This is not true, and they are incredibly intelligent animals that deserve more praise. They are known for their unique social structure, which is dominated by females, and a complex hierarchy within the clan. They are ruthless when it comes to this hierarchy, and even a youngster who tries to defy it can and will be killed by a higher-ranked animal.
Spotted hyenas live in large, matriarchal groups called clans. A clan can consist of up to 80 individuals, but it usually averages around 10 to 40. We have found that this varies from area to area and can depend very much on which other predators they mainly compete with. In South Africa, where they compete mainly with leopards and wild dogs, clans are smaller than the clans in East Africa, where they mainly compete with large prides of lions. Within these clans, there is a strict dominance hierarchy among the females, with the highest-ranking female, or matriarch, being the most dominant. Males need to be careful of the females, as they not only outrank them, but they are much larger, up to 35% bigger than the males. Males too have a hierarchy amongst themselves, but we find the lowest-ranked female will still outrank the highest-ranked male. It isn’t always easy to work out ranking within the clan, but it is very evident around carcasses and den sites where dominant animals take control.
Spotted hyenas do not have a specific breeding season and can reproduce year-round. This means that large established den sites can have cubs present all year round, ranging in age. Some dens have been recorded in having more than 20 youngsters present at a time. Female cubs take on their mothers ranking within a clan, and so there is a hierarchy amongst the youngsters as well. Higher-ranked cubs will have first access to food that is brought back to the den, and so on. The frequency of mating and cub births tends to peak during certain times, often coinciding with times when food resources are more abundant. For example, the lambing time of impala in South Africa or the time the large herds come through a clan’s territory on migratory routes in East Africa.
Mating in spotted hyenas typically involves a brief courtship period, with the male approaching the female cautiously. Mating can be aggressive, and males may be bitten by females during the process. Actual copulation is longer than with cats, and a male may mount a female for as long as 45 minutes. Females will often choose a male who is more submissive to her than others. The gestation period for spotted hyenas is about 110 days (3.5 months), which is the same as for lions. This sounds very short, but it is an adaptation they have. If cubs are killed, it means that a female can come back into oestrous fairly soon and produce another litter without having to wait for too long.
A female spotted hyena gives birth to one or two cubs at a time, but twins are the most common. Cubs are usually born in a communal den, and they are often cared for by multiple females within the clan. They do not allosuckle like lions, but youngsters will be protected by all of the females. Female hyenas have pseudophalluses (a false penis that is an extension of the clitoris), which can make it confusing to identify the sex of a cub at birth. It is easy to see if there is a young male and female born together, though, as a little female will dominate her brother from the get-go and will be larger than him from an early age.
Spotted hyena cubs are born with their eyes open and are relatively well-developed compared to many other carnivore species. They are also born with a razor-sharp set of teeth. This is because they are one of the few mammals that practice siblicide, or Cane and Able syndrome. This means that one youngster will often kill its sibling; this happens if two female cubs are born at the same time. The drive for dominance is so strong that one can destroy the other hours after birth. Footage has been captured by hidden cameras where two sisters start fighting while still wet from afterbirth. Mom will try to stop them, but she cannot stay with them all the time, so the inevitable sometimes happens.
Hyena cubs start eating meat relatively early, at about two months of age. Cubs will start to leave the den at around 8 months of age, exploring with an adult at night but returning to the den during the day. At about 12–14 months, they will leave the den completely, and this is when they are weaned. Females will stay in the clan for the rest of their lives, and after a few years, the young males will leave and join other clans. Within the new clan, the young males need to establish themselves without being killed by the adult females. It may take some time for them to be accepted. Once they are, they will slowly have to climb the hierarchy within the males if they want to eventually breed.
As with most carnivores, cub mortality rates are relatively high, with estimates suggesting that up to 50% of cubs may not survive to adulthood. Factors contributing to cub mortality include predation, intra-clan competition, and infanticide.
Compared to cats, spotted hyenas have a relatively long life span, with individuals in the wild living up to 25 years, though the average is usually lower due to cub mortality and other factors. In captivity, some individuals have been recorded as reaching the age of 40.
Spotted hyenas are known for their intelligence and adaptability, and their complex social structure and reproductive strategies are intriguing aspects of their biology and behavior. It is incredibly interesting, and spending time with these animals is very rewarding and entertaining.