Hyenas have always had a reputation of being strange animals. They are one of the few mammal species which have a matriarchal society, in which the females possess genitals which resemble those of a male. In addition to this, their social hierarchy and greetings are unlike many other mammals. A few days ago, whilst on game drive, we witnessed some rather strange behaviour from a hyena that I had not seen before.
Whilst out on foot, one of the trackers had come across a dead African rock python that appeared to have been killed by a leopard. When we drove a vehicle closer to investigate, we were hit by the most putrid smell from the python’s carcass and had no choice but to back off and look at it through binoculars. Watching from a distance, and contemplating the length of the snake, I noticed a hyena approach it. I immediately assumed that the hyena, attracted by the smell, would drag the python away and start to feed on it. However, it did not. Rather, it proceeded to lie down on top of the dead python and roll around on the carcass. After doing this several times, the hyena got up and walked off, without eating any of the meat. This struck me as strange and is something that I have not witnessed before. Elmon Mhlongo on the other hand, has seen this several times and stated that he has never seen the hyenas actually eat a python. One reason for this may be the extremely acidic stomach juices of pythons which can reportedly taint the meat once the stomach has been pierced. Leopards have been seen feeding off python kills a few times here but have been observed leaving them quite early on, quite possibly for that exact reason.
It is common to see some animals roll around in the dung of other animals. Leopards and lions will often roll around in buffalo dung, but rolling around over a carcass is not often seen. What intrigued me was why a hyena would do this, and I certainly do not profess to know the answer. There are several theories as to why animals will cover themselves with the scent of the dung of other animals. Some ethologists suggest that rolling around in dung or carcasses may be out of curiosity, to lay claim to a kill or to communicate to the rest of the clan what they have found. The majority suggest that rolling around in other animal dung or carcasses could disguise the smell of predators and assist them in hunting. Although I have seen leopards do this on several occasions with buffalo dung, this theory doesn’t really explain this hyena’s behaviour. It seems unlikely that covering itself with the smell of the carcass would assist it in hunting as it may only smell even more and be even more detectable. Furthermore, the fact that the hyena would have rolled around in a perfectly good meal to go and look for another also seems unlikely.
Often things out in nature are very complex and we need to be careful to assign simple explanations to them. Why hyenas do this remains unclear. However, it is an interesting sighting worth noting and is something that is not seen very often at Londolozi.