Column: Love the ugly – Hyena

Ugly animals are relegated to the sidelines.
A framed picture of a spotted hyena ‘Despite what most people think, spotted hyenas do not live off of the scraps of other carnivores.’ Illustration Marly Hendricks/Unsplash

Unjustly so, says ecologist Francisca Virtuoso. who aims to correct this through her project Love the Ugly. On Resource-online, she writes a beautiful story about an ugly animal every three weeks.

Text Francisca Virtuoso

Logo Love the ygly

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

The giggly villain from the Lion King is often seen as greedy and stupid. Spotted hyenas are one of the most under-appreciated predators in the world, even though they are one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom.

To kill or not to kill

Despite what most people think, spotted hyenas do not live off of the scraps of other carnivores. They actually hunt a lot more than they scavenge, killing up to 95% of what they consume. Some studies have found that lions actually steal more food from spotted hyenas than the other way around.

With some of the strongest jaws and teeth in the world, spotted hyenas have a bite force of 1100 pounds (7.6 MPa), almost double that of lions, their strongest competitor – basically, they could easily snap a baseball bat with one bite.

This bite force comes in handy to crack bones and hooves, allowing the hyenas to access the nutrient-rich marrow that is inaccessible to most other predators. They are also adapted to digest this bone material, and their feces turn white from all the calcium in their diet.

No food waste! Spotted hyenas will consume every single part of their prey. Working as a team, a group of hyenas can eat an entire antelope in less than half an hour. But meat is not all they eat; depending on what is available, they will also snack on insects, birds, snakes, fish, and occasionally vegetable matter.

Let’s talk about sex

Did you know that female hyenas have penises too? Actually, they’re known as pseudo-penises, as they are elongated clitoris used for copulation, birth, urination, but also sociability – hyenas develop erections as part of social greeting ceremonies. This makes it very difficult to accurately distinguish males from females.

Females have three times more testosterone in their body than males. These high levels of testosterone explain the more aggressive behaviors in females, and the fact that they are more muscular than their male counterparts.

Sex with a pseudo-penis is difficult. Females lack an external vaginal opening, so to copulate they retract the pseudo-penis on itself, creating an opening – giving them complete control on who they mate with. Giving birth can also lead to complications due to a particularly narrow birth canal. This poses a life-threatening situation for both the mother and the cubs; more than half of newborns die from suffocation during birth.

Once they have managed to give birth, spotted hyenas are great mothers! Their milk has the highest protein content of any land carnivore. And when it comes to family support, all mothers within a clan collectively nurse and protect the cubs. All members will cooperatively bring food from a hunt or scavenge to share with the little ones.

Hyena social club

In the Lion King, hyenas are depicted as stupid villains. Nothing could be further from the truth. These carnivores are capable of complex problem solving and have superior social intelligence. They are highly sociable, living in clans of up to 80 individuals, with an extremely complex hierarchical structure.

These female-dominated clans (remember the high testosterone levels) are made up of related females, their cubs, and the outcasted males from other clans. As the boss-ladies within the clan rank higher than the males, they have access to food first and are the ones choosing who to mate with. They also have the power to reinforce the hierarchy system, often ranking their newborns higher than the adult immigrant males, who end up on the lowest social ranks.

You will rarely see all members of a clan together, though. Spotted hyenas live in a fusion-fission society. Depending on their needs, the clan members will come together (fusion) or part ways (fission). They are often found alone or in small groups, and have complex communication strategies for when they’d like to meet – with a vocal repertoire unlike that of any other carnivore. The “laugh” we all know is only 1 of more than 10 different callings, and actually means distress, not joy. There are also whoops, cackles and yells, which are thought to be complex codes with different meanings and to indicate social status.

Why should I care: a world without hyenas

Hyenas are not the most popular animals. From their evil laugh and ungraceful body structure (at least compared to the elegant leopard or lion), to their strange eating habits; they are everything but appealing. But there is much more to these spotted animals than meets the eye. Hopefully, you can now see some beauty in them too.

First off, let’s admit it, hyenas are just really cool. Did you know that although they look more like some kind of big furry dog, they are actually more closely related to cats?

Spotted hyenas are adaptable to different environments and, at times, you can even find them in cities alongside humans. Recent research has shown the economic and health benefits these carnivores bring to communities. By consuming hundreds of tons of waste per year and removing carcasses, hyenas reduce the potential spread of diseases.

Alongside their role as environmental cleaners, they are also considered important cultural and spiritual symbols in some communities. Although some cultures see them as the embodiment of ugliness, stupidity and excessiveness, others consider them to represent sacredness and fertility. And in certain cultures, they are even believed to have been the animal that brought the sun to the Earth. A world without hyenas would be a dirty and cold place.

Francisca Virtuoso is a PhD candidate in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. Next time in Love the Ugly, learn about the arguably ugliest rodent in the world – the naked mole-rat. Is there an ugly animal you would like to see in the spotlight? Send a message via @love_the_ugly.

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