Spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta)

Also known as: laughing hyaena, laughing hyena, spotted hyena
GenusCrocuta (1)
SizeTotal length: 1.3 - 1.85 m (2)
Male weight: 45 - 62 kg (2)
Female weight: 55 - 82.5 kg (2)

The spotted hyaena is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of the most misunderstood animals, the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) has a reputation as being sly and cowardly, but is in fact fascinating and intelligent with a remarkable social system (2). In appearance the spotted hyaena is dog-like, with high shoulders and powerful forequarters sloping down to the hindquarters (2). Its coarse, short hair is sandy, ginger, dull grey or brown, and it gets its name from the dark spots on the back, flanks, rump and legs, which fade with age (2) (3). A short mane ends just behind the shoulders, and the short, brown tail has a black, bushy tip (3). The spotted hyaena is the second largest carnivore in Africa after the lion (3), and possesses incredibly strong jaws and teeth, enabling it to crush heavy bones to obtain the nutritious marrow within (2). Female spotted hyaenas can be up to 14 percent heavier than males (3).

The spotted hyaena occurs throughout sub-Saharan Africa, except for the Congo rainforests and in the far south (2). Its distribution is now patchy in many areas (4).

The spotted hyaena inhabits savannas, grasslands, woodlands and montane forest, up to altitudes of 4,000 metres (2) (4).

Although well-known for being a scavenger, the spotted hyaena is also an adept hunter, capable of bringing down a wildebeest (3). Spotted hyaenas live in clans and frequently hunt in groups, as cooperation can improve their hunting success. However, this often depends on prey availability; in the Ngorongoro Crate, large groups are required to kill a zebra, whilst in the southern Kalahari, gemsbok calves are the primary prey, for which a single hyaena will suffice (2). Even when moving alone, spotted hyaenas keep in touch with other members of their clan with whoops, yells and a manic cackle, which gave rise to their name ‘laughing hyaena’ (2). Spotted hyaenas eat with incredible speed, consuming everything except horns; a group of hyaenas was observed demolishing an adult zebra in just 15 minutes (4).

Each hyaena clan occupies a territory and defends it against neighbouring clans.  Female spotted hyaenas, which are more aggressive than males (5), are the dominant sex. The clan is structured by a strict hierarchy where the highest ranking male is subordinate to the lowest ranking female (2) (4). The alpha female is the best fed in the clan (3).  When around two and a half years of age, males leave the clan they were born in and work their way into a new clan, whereas females usually remain with the same clan for life (2) (4).

Mature females usually give birth to one or two cubs a year, after a gestation period of 110 days (6). Males play no parental role to the cubs (3), which are born in dens with a set of teeth and their eyes already open.  Within minutes of birth they can engage in aggressive interactions, which quickly lead to the establishment of a dominance hierarchy, with the dominant cub getting to control access to the mother’s milk (2). Sometimes this aggression can lead to the death of the weaker cub (4) (7). The cubs are fed meat at nine months, leave the den at 9 to 12 months, but are not weaned until they are 12 to 16 months (8).

Whilst most spotted hyena populations in protected areas in southern Africa appear to be stable, those in eastern and western Africa, including those within protected areas, are thought to be declining. Persecution appears to be the main reason for these declines. The spotted hyaena is shot, poisoned, trapped and snared, even in protected areas. This frequently occurs in farming areas after actual or assumed hyaena killing of livestock, or as a preventative measure to protect their livestock. A decline in habitat quality poses an additional threat to hyaena populations outside of protected areas (4).

Despite its Least Concern status, the decline of spotted hyaena populations outside of conservation areas makes this species increasingly dependent on the continued existence and enforcement of protected areas (1).  In 1998 the World Conservation Union (IUCN) published a Hyaena Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan (4). This comprehensive plan outlines a number of measures necessary for the conservation of the spotted hyaena, including campaigns to improve livestock protection rather than the persecution of predators, and efforts to improve public perception of hyaenas and promote them as tourist attractions (4). In addition to the maintenance of protected areas, such actions should hopefully ensure a more positive future, and reputation, for the spotted hyaena.

Find out more about the spotted hyaena:

Authenticated (10/09/07) by Dr K.E. Holekamp, Michigan State University.

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  2. Macdonald, D.W. (2001) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  4. Mills, M.G.L. and Hofer, H. (1998) Hyaenas. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Hyaena Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  5. Szykman, M., Engh, A.L., Van Horn, R.C., Scribner, K.T., Smale, L. and Holekamp, K.E. (2003) Rare male aggression directed toward females in a female-dominated society: baiting behavior in the spotted hyena. Aggressive Behavior, 29: 457-474.
  6. Schneider, K.M. (1926) Uber Hyanenzucht. Die Peltztierzucht, 2: 1-14.
  7. Wahaj, S.A., Place, N.J., Weldele, M.L., Glickman, S.E. and Holekamp, K.E. (2007) Siblicide in the spotted hyena: analysis with ultrasonic examination of wild and captive individuals. Behavioral Ecology, 18(6): 974-984.
  8. Holekamp, K.E., Smale, L. and Szykman, M. (1996) Rank and reproduction in the female spotted hyaena. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, 108: 229-237.