But why? you may be asking yourself. If they could, they definitely would, as it opens up a whole realm of opportunity. Think of all the leopards kills that they could reach!
Spotted hyenas are formidable predators, known for chasing down their prey for miles and miles before eventually catching the exhausted animal and finishing it off. However, they are also cunning scavengers and are known to steal a large proportion of all kills that leopards make, simply chasing the leopard off. It is because of this risk of leopards losing their kills to hyenas that the spotted cats have taken to hoisting carcasses into trees, out of the reach of hungry hyenas.
In areas of low hyena density, leopards will feed on the ground most of the time.
The hyena density at Londolozi and throughout the Sabi Sand Reserve is high, thus most leopards’ kills are hoisted into trees, if they can get them there before a hyena manages to rob them. Getting back to the original question though – what allows leopard to climb trees that hyena don’t have? Take a look at the images below for a better understanding.
As can be seen above, hyena do not have retractable claws like lions and leopards do. This is probably the main morphological trait that has limited the hyenas’ lifestyle to terra firma only. Lion and leopard are able to push their claws out only when necessary, such as when they need to grip onto the trunk of a tree while ascending or descending a tree or when gripping onto prey during a hunt. What this also means is that their claws remain well-kept and sharp, enabling excellent traction when in use. In contrast, hyena do not have the luxury of retracting their claws at their liberty, thus they cannot grip onto tree trunks to climb, nor can they grip onto prey with their claws during a hunt. This may be the reason that they simply begin feeding immediately when they catch their prey (like wild dogs that also do not have retractable claws) as the grip is maintained with the jaw rather than the claws.
The front limbs of leopards are free from their collarbone, attached mainly with ligament and muscle, and are allowed a much greater range of motion; a hyena lacks these adaptations, so even if it did have the required claws, it probably wouldn’t be able to rotate its legs to exert enough force into the trunk to grip properly anyway.
Cheetahs are an outlier in this discussion as their body shape is more similar to that of lions and leopards compared to hyena.
Cheetahs – like hyenas – also have non-retractable claws that are an adaption for maintaining grip on the ground as they sprint. This is limiting though in that cheetah are unable to climb vertical trees, but can scramble up sloping ones if necessary.
For further reading on leopards’ adaptions for climbing see Ranger Bruce Arnott’s blog post.