You say “hyena” … and I say “hyaena”

People in the United States spell the word “hyena” with only one “a ”  (at the end of the word). However, English-speaking people in most of the rest of the world spell the name of these animals with an “a” after the “y” as well as another “a” at the end. And want to hear something funny? People in eastern Africa, who speak Swahili, call these animals “fisi” (pronounced fee’ see). And here’s how you say “hyena” in Chinese  (pronunced lieh gou).

 How big is a hyena?

Well, that depends on WHICH hyena we’re talking about. An aardwolf is about the size of a fox, a spotted hyena is about the size of a big wolf, and brown and striped hyenas are intermediate in size.

A paw of a spotted hyena next to the hand of an adult woman. Photo by Leslie J. Curren.

Where can you go to watch hyenas ?

Striped hyenas live in Africa and Asia, but the other three hyena species only live in Africa. If you can’t go see them in their natural habitat, striped hyenas can be seen at several different zoos in Europe and Asia, and at two zoos in the United States (the Denver Zoo and the Living Desert). Spotted hyenas can also be viewed at zoos in Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States.

See cool video footage of striped and spotted hyenas at the Zoo in Denver, Colorado, USA 

Striped hyenas at the Denver Zoo, Colorado, USA. Notice that these animals have long, beautiful manes!

Hyena social lives

There are four different hyena species: spotted hyenas, brown hyenas, striped hyenas, and aardwolves. Spotted hyenas are the largest; they are about the same size as a big german shepherd dog. Aadrwolves are the smallest, weighing only as much as a large housecat! Even though hyenas look a lot like dogs, they are NOT dogs. In fact they are more closely related to cats than dogs! Young hyenas are called “cubs”, not “puppies” or “kittens.” Striped hyenas live alone except when they have cubs. Aardwolves live in pairs, with just their mates.  Brown hyenas live in small family groups. Spotted hyenas live in great big groups, called “clans,” that can contain as many as 80 hyenas. Hyena cubs are very cute and they are a LOT of fun to watch.

A baby brown hyena (top) and a spotted hyena mom carrying her one-month old cub to the den (bottom).

Female hyenas are wonderful moms. They take excellent care of their babies, and most hyenas provide their cubs with milk for over one year. Dogs wean their puppies, and cats wean their kittens,
after only a couple of months, so you can see that hyenas are feeding their babies for a very long time! Also, hyenas have litters that are much smaller than the litters of dogs or cats. For example, spotted hyenas usually only have one or two babies in each litter.

PHOTO BY ELLEN CREAGER/DETROIT FREE PRESS To see the greatest wildlife show on Earth, head for the Masai Mara in Kenya in August, when the wildebeest migration happens as 1.5 million animals, including zebras, sweep out of Tanzania’s Serengeti to the Masai Mara.

All the moms in a spotted hyena clan bring their cubs to one big den site, and raise their babies there until they are old enough to travel around with the moms. All the other hyenas in the clan come almost every day to visit the moms and cubs hanging out at the den so the den is really the social center of any spotted hyena clan.

Spotted hyena cubs at the den.

Hyaenas are cool!

Aardwolves eat only bugs (mainly termites), but the other three kinds of hyenas like to eat meat and bones. In fact, the heads of these three other hyena species are specialized for doing a VERY difficult job: cracking open large bones! Just look at those choppers!!

Skull of an extinct hyaena from Makapansgat Cave (Plio-Pleistocene). Photo by dkimages.

If a hyena puts a bone between its main bone-cracking teeth (the third one from the left on the bottom jaw, and the second one from the left on the top jaw), it can break open bones as large as the thigh bone of a giraffe. That is a mighty big bone!!

Hyenas are misunderstood

Most people think of spotted hyenas like this: 

But in reality they are not the nasty, mean scavengers depicted by the producers of The Lion King. Instead they are very cute and cuddly when they are little, and very impressive predators when they are grown up. Instead of slinking around waiting for lions to leave them some scraps, the hyenas usually hunt and kill their own prey themselves. They can run up to 55 kilometers per hour, and they can kill antelope that weigh three times more than they do!

Here are some alternative images to show you what hyenas are REALLY  like. Those of us who study hyenas love and respect them, and these photos show you a little bit about why that is so.

How do you study hyenas?

Most people who want to find out about hyenas in their natural habitat fit some individuals with radio collars like the one in the photo below. Once a hyena is wearing a radio collar, it can be found again every day, even in the dark, and followed around to watch what it does.

Here is a brown hyena named Floggy who has been fitted with a radio collar. The collars don’t seem to bother the hyenas any more than collars bother domestic dogs. Photo by Ingrid Wiesel.

Spotted hyena cubs take a nap in the grass.
A wee black cub chews on the nose of its mom.
A hyena family.
Cubs at a communal den in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo by Heather E. Watts.
A spotted hyena carries the head of a wildebeest. Photo by Todd Gustafson.

Links for kids

 South African Wildlife – Spotted Hyena –
A fact sheet on spotted hyenas, describing their appearance, biology, anatomy, diet and habitat, along with several photos.

 Hyena Printout- – Very basic information on the spotted hyena, such as behaviour, diet and anatomy, along with a print-out diagram.

 Animal Fact Sheets – Hyena – A fact sheet on spotted hyenas, describing their range, biology, classification, diet, behaviour. A photograph is included, along with some information on conservation.

 Hyena – The Savanna Queen – Large site containing several photographs of hyenas and info on the three species of “true” hyenas, the striped, brown and spotted hyenas. Information is given on the hyena’s evolution, biology, social system, and behaviour.

  BBC – Nature Wildfacts – Spotted hyena –
General information on the spotted hyena, along with three photographs.

 Laughing Hyena Den – The Spotted Hyena Centre – Constantly updated guide to spotted hyenas, including data on biology, social structure, behavior/psychology, and relations with other species, along with hyena illustrations, and conservation info.

 Spotted Hyena Videos –
Links to two video clips of spotted hyenas; one of a beautiful adult hyena and another of three cute cubs, which are in MPEG and M1V video formats, respectively.

 All About Hyenas – Provides spotted hyena information and dispels several myths, such as scavenging, hermaphroditism, the meaning of their laughter, and their biological classification.

 Spotted Hyenas in Africa – General information on spotted hyenas, conservation data, and several photographs.

 The Spotted Hyena – A collection of twelve hyena photographs, along with various captions providing information about hyenas, mostly relating to the hyena’s biological/physical features and its predatory habits.

 Wildlife African Hyena Photos – A collection of hyena photographs taken in a South African national park.

 JungleWalk – Hyenas – A page containing hyena sounds, videos, and links to other sites.

Hyena mood icons by Karena Kliefoth.
Hyena clip art.

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