In the animal world, the hyena has been the subject of more scandalous falsehoods than even the sloth. They are considered nature’s thugs – condemned throughout history and across cultures and continents as dimwitted cowards who prowl backyards waiting for an opportunity to rob other, nobler animals of their dinner.
As one of the world’s most successful hunters and Africa’s most common large predator, hyenas have always been an interesting topic of discussion. Of the three different species of hyenas – spotted, striped, and brown – spotted hyenas are the largest and most widespread. Their hearing and night vision are excellent, which are important traits for hunting.
Do these traits make them a threat to humans? Are hyenas dangerous?
Yes, hyenas are quite dangerous animals, especially spotted species. Hyenas are most dangerous when defending their young and territory. The bite force of spotted hyenas is 1100 PSI, strong enough to shatter bones. They tend to attack the lightest prey, such as children and women, and their conflicts with humans’ increase as the population in Africa grows.
They are highly intelligent, social animals commonly known as scavengers, when in fact they are formidable predators. They frequently steal fresh prey from lions, leopards and cheetahs. Hyenas can weigh up to 190 pounds and have a bite that can crush bone. Thanks to their intelligence and ability to coordinate hunting, they manage to take down prey much more often than people realize.
Although hyenas are commonly considered scavengers, feeding on the remains of prey killed by other animals, there are several incidents that show they can be very dangerous and efficient hunters.
The bewildering biology of hyenas
Interestingly, although hyenas look like dogs, they are more closely related to cats. Their closest relatives are civets and genet cats. When you look at hyenas, you get the impression that they are all male. However, they are not. Female hyenas have pseudo-penises that are used in dominance games. The females are bred by these appendages and give birth to their young. It is an unusual, extremely painful birthing process, as the hyena gives birth through its clitoris.
It is an animal that looks and hunts like a dog, but is actually a pimped out member of the mongoose family and therefore more related to a cat.
Even more puzzling than the question of what kind of animal the hyena is was the fundamental question of its sex. “It is the common opinion that the hyena possesses both sexes in itself, being a male one year and a female the next,” wrote Pliny the Elder in his Encyclopedia of Animals. The Roman naturalist was not the first – nor the last – to claim that the hyena was a hermaphrodite. The rumor was widespread in African folklore and was discussed by Aristotle. But although modern science has identified more than 65,000 known cross-sex species, the hyena is not one of them.
Do hyenas eat people?
The fact that hyenas are very capable of killing people should no longer be a surprise by now. But do they also eat people? Yes, they do, sometimes! Especially when they have to fight with food shortage. Although it is rather rare for hyenas to attack adult humans, these animals are strong enough to do so.
Hyenas are known to feed in packs on corpses, including human corpses, but it is rather rare for these animals to hunt and devour humans. If prey is plentiful, hyenas would not hunt humans as their primary food source. Their diet consists of lizards, snakes, birds, and mammals. So as long as their natural food is available, hyenas will not attack humans.
Six (6) wild facts about hyenas
The laughter of a hyena indicates social status.
Hyenas don’t laugh just for fun. Scientists say the pitch and frequency (or tone) of a hyena’s laughter can give an indication of its age and social status.
Hyenas are smarter than chimpanzees.
The size of an animal’s frontal cortex is thought to be related to its social intelligence, and hyenas have a frontal cortex equal to that of primates. A Duke University study showed that a pair of captive hyenas performed better than chimpanzees at problem solving and social cooperation. Even more surprising, during the study, the hyenas solved all problems silently, using only nonverbal cues to communicate.
3. Spotted hyenas are cunning killers.
Contrary to what Simba would have you believe, spotted hyenas don’t just scavenge the remains of lions. Spotted hyenas hunt and kill in packs. Ninety-five percent (95%) of what a hyena eats comes from hunting. A group of hyenas can devour an entire zebra in less than half an hour with nothing left – not even the bones. However, this feeding frenzy comes at a price: hyenas tear, claw and fight with each other for the remains of their meal.
With striped hyenas, of course, it’s a different story. Striped hyenas feed on carrion and are often hit by vehicles as they eat roadkill.
They have creepy greeting ceremonies.
When a spotted hyena greets another hyena after a long separation, they perform a greeting ceremony in which both the male and female members of the species develop an erection.
5. The female spotted hyena has a penis.
Female spotted hyenas have a pseudo-penis, which is basically an elongated clitoris. Some pseudo-penises can grow up to seven inches long, exceeding the average length of the human penis.
6. The life of a baby hyena is not easy.
The female spotted hyena uses her pseudo-penis to urinate, copulate, and give birth, which can complicate the birthing process-it is estimated that 60 percent of hyena cubs die from suffocation. (It’s also dangerous for mothers: the cubs can tear the pseudo-penis layer, an injury that can be fatal.) Those that survive face some difficulties of their own: female hyenas have only two nipples, so litters of more than two must struggle to survive, with the weakest young starving to death.
Many tribes in Africa leave their dead for the hyenas to eat. Hyenas have also been eaten by humans. Hyenas attack people, especially if they think they are injured, sick, or unable to act. Some biologists have studied them and discovered some surprising behaviors. They are dangerous but fascinating animals that are not yet very well understood.
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