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Episode 34: Respect, Don’t Fear The Hyena

Spotted Hyena are the largest of the four species of hyena. The other three species are the Brown Hyena, the Stripped Hyena and the Aardwolf. For this episode we focus mainly on the Spotted Hyena but do reference the other species in some of our discussion. Widely misunderstood, the hyena is an incredibly adaptive predator of Africa and Asia.

Hyena Origins

Hyena belong to the sub-Family Feliformia of the order Carnivora. Other species include other “cat-like” carnivores such as cats, mongoose and civets.  The other sub-Family Caniformia includes the dogs, pinnipeds, and mustelids.

The evolution of hyenas can be traced back 18 million years into the species we see today. The first identified hyena was Protoctitherium gaillardia. The largest ever known hyena was called Pachycrocuta, or Giant-short faced hyena which died out about 400,000 years ago in Eurasia.

Today of the four species and their habitats include:

  • Spotted Hyena (Crocuta Crocuta) – located across central and southern Africa
  • Brown Hyena (Parahyaena brunnea)- located in southern Africa
  • Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena)- North and East Africa stretching all the way to India and Nepal
  • Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus)- Southwest and east Africa

Hyena Physiology

The Spotted Hyena is the largest of all the hyena species. They can be almost 6 feet long (2 meters), and weigh from 90 to 190 lbs (40-86 kg). Females tend to be 10% larger than males. Their coats can be sandy brown, grey, or have yellow tint with brown or black spots. Their heads are higher than hind quarters, with a sloped back. Their very large ears help with hearing and have very keen eyesight.

Hyena are both hunters and scavengers with a bite force of 800 psi that can break bone with ease. They actually prefer bone to even meat. They will consume an entire animal, even the teeth. However, they will avoid horns and the rumen (stomach) of their prey. They have been known to hunt in groups to take down bigger prey and usually hunt antelope, young rhinos, foxes, fish, birds, rodents and other small prey.

Hyena Behavior

An especially unique mammal, hyena’s live in large groups (up to 80 animals) called clans. They are led by a single female, the matriarch, and the males are usually the lowest of the low in the pecking order. Female hyenas are extremely unusual in they have genitalia that often looks like a male of any other species. Their large elongated clitoris, resembles a male penis, and they even have small pouches like testicles. It is believed these females are exposed to high levels of testosterone during gestation and this may lead to not only their physical appearance, but their behavior as well. The female hyena, again similar to males of other species, are usually aggressive and dominant.

You can read more here.

Hyena Conservation

  • Spotted Hyena (Crocuta Crocuta)
    • Least concern but population of 47,000 decreasing
  • Brown Hyena (Parahyaena brunnea)-
    • Near threatened with extinction, a population of up to 8,000 individuals that are stable
  • Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena)
    • Near threatened with extinction with population of up to 14,000 individuals, population is decreasing
  • Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus)-
    • Least concern, stable populations

Organizations to Support

Botswana Predator Conservation Trust

Brown Hyena Research Project


Chris’s brother Shawn Mortensen passed away in 2009. He was a well-known photographer and his website can be seen here. A quick google search of his name will bring up much of his work.

In 2007 Shawn traveled to Ethiopia where he went with the locals to feed hyena’s chicken holding a stick with his mouth. The locals believe feeding hyenas wards off evil spirits and can help cure ailments.  This goes to show that hyenas are not the blood-thirsty beasts often portrayed in popular culture. HOWEVER, these particular hyena are conditioned to this method of feeding and we would never attempt this on our own.

May 29, 2018
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