Shrouded in dark mythology and evil folklore for centuries, the hyena has struggled to gain the recognition it deserves. Observed as the ‘dirty joke of the natural world’ by Ernest Hemingway; the hyenas slouched, scruffy appearance and eerie vocals along with their unshakable association with death have helped uphold these negative connotations.
As I am sure you have seen in previous posts and maybe even during your visits to Londolozi, the ranger and tracker community try their best to uplift these incredible carnivores and change the way people view them. The ideal stage in which to pitch this idea is a hyena den site in which the clan raise their young and where we are afforded the opportunity to see the cute cubs as they curiously dart around the termite mound.
An old hyena den site, not far from the camp, that was used for a large portion of 2017-2019, was found to be active again about two months ago. It’s the first reliable hyena den site that we’ve had in a while and has been providing us with some phenomenal views. For those that do not know, hyena clans will create communal den sites, usually in an old termite mound or another form of burrow into the ground where they will raise their young together. A typical morning or afternoon at the clan den site will keep you rather entertained as the playful cubs annoy their mothers and explore the exterior reaches of their natal area. However, a deeper look into these den sites (figuratively!) gives us an idea of the complexities that characterise these mammals and their social structures.
Spotted hyenas form the biggest, large carnivore social groups in the world. These are called ‘clans’, they are territorial and can number up to 50 individuals in certain areas, although you’re very unlikely to even see half of them in the same place at once. They instead spread themselves out over a rather large territory and form intra-clan alliances which associate together more than the clan as a whole. The females of a clan are generally all related as sisters/aunts/mothers etc. and are the socially dominant gender, outranking all the males in the clan. The males are comprised of non-breeding ‘locals’ and higher ranking, ‘foreign’ breeding males that have been accepted into the clan, from another, through a series of intricate behavioural routines centred on dominance and submissiveness.
Some of the earlier observations of hyenas theorised that they are hermaphrodites or that they could mysteriously switch between genders at their own will. These sentiments were also driving forces in creating the bad media around the species tying them up in evil folklore and superstitions. While they are now both known to be incorrect, one can easily see how these myths arose; both and male and female hyenas appear to have male genitals. With the high levels of androgen (a hormone that develops male characteristics) being present in the females, they are, as a result much larger than the males – thus giving them their social advantage – but at the cost of having an enlarged clitoris (appearing as somewhat of a pseudo-penis) and external, exposed labia (appearing as a scrotum). While these peculiar developments don’t seem to have any direct function, they are recognised simply as by-products of the high levels of androgen that the females possess, resulting in them being larger and more dominant.
Why do females dominate?
The strongest theory I have come across is that hyenas are known to be cannibalistic. If the males were dominant, they would ultimately threaten the livelihoods of the cubs but with the females all being larger and stronger, the young cubs are better protected. Personally I would prefer not to prescribe this as the only reason for hyenas having a matriarchal social structure, but it certainly could be a contributing factor.
While male hyenas play little to no parental role, hyena mothers are very attentive and caring. They usually give birth to two cubs at a time. With a fully developed set of teeth and open eyes, hyena cubs begin competing with each other from day one. Often one sibling will end up larger than the other after as little as two weeks due to them dominating at feeding time. The mothers nurse their cubs outside the burrows, usually close to the entrance, for up to four hours a day for over a year (albeit at a declining rate). From just a few months old, they are introduced to meat which will be brought back to the den sites by their mothers after long foraging missions that can last for a few days at a time. They are eventually weaned off their mother’s milk by the age of 18 months.
While they may not be the most classically beautiful creatures, hyenas are undeniably one of the most important large mammals of the savanna ecosystem. Their intricate social system, more complex than most of its competitors, is testament to their intelligence. They can be easy to overlook but if one takes a moment to spend some tie with these large carnivores, you may be pleasantly surprised…