Hyaenidae – Hyenas

Catching prey with their teeth rather than claws, these tough guys are vital for most African ecosystems

Hyenas are one of nature’s most interesting carnivores, with characteristics that set them apart in the animal kingdom. They possess a unique combination of long legs, long necks, impressively large eyes and ears, and blunt snouts, making them readily identifiable. Their fur is often shaggy, adorned with distinctive patterns of stripes or spots, and they boast a short, bushy tail. Notably, their feet are large with well-padded toes, which are crucial for their lifestyle.

Hyenas are often celebrated as the animal kingdom’s most efficient mammalian scavengers. This impressive title is earned thanks to their extraordinary jaw strength and robust teeth, which allow them to crush and consume bones, teeth, and even horns that other predators cannot digest. The high efficiency of their digestive system enables them to process and extract nutrients from parts of carcasses that are typically discarded by other carnivores.

Their skulls are long and strong, housing a powerful set of jaw muscles that give them one of the strongest bites in the mammalian world. The spotted hyena, in particular, is known for its ability to consume and fully digest bones and tough skin, making it a critical part of the ecosystem by cleaning up dead animal remains. The striped hyena, distinguishable by its less bold spots and mane that stands erect when frightened, is the only species that extends its habitat into parts of Asia, showcasing the adaptability of these creatures.

Hyenas are also noted for their intelligence and complex social structures. Spotted hyenas, for instance, live in large, matriarchal groups known as clans, which can consist of up to 80 individuals. These clans are intricate societies with a clear hierarchy, where each member knows their place. Hyenas communicate with a range of vocalizations, including the famous “laugh,” which can signal excitement, nervousness, or submission.