I know what the common perception of hyenas is: cruel, cowardly scavengers who leech off of other predators’ hunts. When we think of these animals, we most often think of the trio from The Lion King.
Disney actually got in a bit of trouble over its depiction of spotted hyenas. The animators went to the University of California to sketch captive subjects and promised the researchers that they would portray the animals in a positive light. One of the researchers, jokingly, called on people to “boycott The Lion King” to help preserve wild hyenas and that the film “set back hyena conservation efforts” with its depiction of them as craven, simple-minded comic relief. However, the researchers did admit that the film drew more attention to hyenas.
Hyenas vs. Lions
But if people hate hyenas for stealing from other animals or killing young and weak prey, then they should also hate lions for the same reasons. I love lions, but they certainly do not have the moral high ground over hyenas.
Spotted hyenas, which live in Africa, are pack hunters. They operate in a very strict hierarchy, with a matriarch at the top. While their close relatives, the striped hyena, are primarily scavengers, these hyenas kill up to 95% of their own prey (meanwhile a large part of a lion’s diet is made of carrion stolen from a hyena). It’s not the case of lions being at the top of the food chain while the hyena struggles to best them; both animals are essentially on equal footing with how much they hunt, and how often they fight each other.
Hyena “clans” can number in the eighties, and their clan structure and social dynamics are much more complicated than most carnivores. Every hyena has a rank, starting with the matriarch. Typically adult males are at the bottom, unless he’s the son of the matriarch (yes – hyenas have nepotism). While the males don’t have much to do with raising cubs, they recognise and play with their daughters, who show less aggression to their fathers than other males. A hyena hierarchy is determined not by strength, but by social networks. Their ranks often depend on their relationship to the matriarch, and hyenas will fall into groups that work cooperatively in the clan.
Hyenas might seem like a type of wild dog, but they’re actually more closely related to cats. They belong to a suborder of mammals called feliform, which include mongooses, meerkats and other cat-like carnivores. They do have similarities to canines, and that’s to do with something called convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is when very different species develop similar traits to fill an ecological niche. Hyenas, despite not being canids at all, developed similar bone-crushing jaws as dogs. And just like dogs, they catch prey with their teeth instead of their claws.
Hyenas have a bite force nearly twice the strength of a lion’s. This allows them to easily break through the thickest bones of their prey, granting them access to the delicious bone marrow.
Hyenas in Mythology
In West Africa and Tanzania, hyenas often have negative associations as omens of immorality and treachery. They have more supernatural connotations in the Middle East, appearing as cannibalistic lycanthropes. The Greeks believed that the bodies of werewolves who died on the battlefield would rise as vampiric hyenas that feast on dying soldiers.
Unlike my post on bearded vultures, I’m not trying to convince you that hyenas are actually nice and friendly animals. They’re still quite vicious and cruel, and their sadistic laughter is certainly creepy. But hopefully, I’ve dispelled some of the misconceptions around them. These animals are intelligent, with complex social structures. They aren’t cowards; they’ll go up against a lion with no qualms. They’re also closer to cats than dogs, and have jaws strong enough to shatter bones.