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The Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) : also known as the laughing hyena is a hyena species classed as the sole extant member of the genus Crocuta and is a native to the Sub-Saharan Africa in countries like Uganda, Ghana, Zambia, Malawi and many more.  The spotted hyena is the most social of the carnivore which is the largest group sizes and with most complex social behaviors. Different from other species, the social system of the spotted hyena is openly competitive other than cooperative, with access to kills, mating opportunities and the time of dispersal for males depending on their ability to dominate other clan members. Females only care and provide only for their own clubs rather than assisting each other, yet males display no paternal care and their societies are larger than males and dominate them. Being the most common large carnivore in Africa, the spotted hyena is a greatly successful animal due to its part adaptability and opportunism. The species is primarily a hunter but at times it’s a savage with the capacity to eat and digest a bone, skin, and other animal wastes. Spotted hyenas hunt alone, in small groups of 2-5 members or in large groups and during a hunt, they often run through ungulate herds in order to select an individual to attack and once selected, their prey is chased over a long distance often several kilometers.

Physical Appearance

The spotted hyena has a strong and well developed neck including forequarters, but relatively underdeveloped behind parts. The rump is round instead of rectangular which prevent attackers coming from getting a grip on it. Their fur varies greatly and always changes with age and it is made up of spots, and much shorter. The base color is usually pale greyish-brown or the vice versa where an irregular pattern of roundish spots is superimposed on the hind and back quarters.   The spots vary in size, even on single individuals and their variable distinction may be reddish, blackish or almost deep brown. A less distinct spot pattern is visible on the legs and belly but not on the throat and chest whilst some made research confirms that at times the spot patterns help to identify out individual hyenas. The crest is usually reddish-brown in color, the crown and upper part of the face is brownish including a white band above both eyes although in the front of the eyes. The area around the rhinarium, the lips and the back portion of the chin are all blackish and the limbs are spotted, though the feet vary in color ranging from light brown to blackish. The mammal has appropriately a large heart, nearly to 1% of its body weight thus giving it great endurance in long chases. The spotted hyena’s skull has a much greater size and narrower sagittal crests and due to its size, it has one of the most powerful built skulls among the Carnivores. 

Behavior

Spotted hyenas form social groups namely clans and these may comprise of 3 to 80 members. These large clans usually occur in prime territory with large prey concentrations, such as Kidepo valley national park whilst smaller clans occur in the desert areas in southern Africa. Here all females are dominant to all males and females remain in their natal clans for the rest of their life. Males scatter or disperse upon reaching sexual maturity and once a male joins another clan, he enters a dominance line up that the other males respect. Males spend quite a long time on developing relationships with females in the clan, they follow females for periods of days or weeks and eventually gain favor with the females through this behavior. Even though spotted hyenas live in clans, the members of a clan are only observed all together in three circumstances such as when defending the territory, at communal den and during kills. Sometimes the clan members forage alone or in small groups, higher ranking females have been shown to combine more with kin than low ranking females. 

Hunting Behavior

Leaving alone other large African carnivores, spotted hyenas do not normally prey on any species. When hunting medium to large sized prey, they tend to select certain animal categories like the young animals that are frequently targeted as well as the old ones, although the another category is not so significant when hunting zebras, due to their aggressive anti-predator behaviors. The spotted hyena spots and tracks live prey by sight, smell and hearing however carrion is normally detected by smell and the sound of other animals or predators feeding. Their auditory perception is powerful that it can detect sounds of predators killing prey or feeding on carcasses over a quite distance. The spotted hyena relies more on sight than smell when hunting and does not follow its prey’s prints or travel single, small prey is killed by being shaken in the mouth whilst large prey is eaten alive.

Denning Behavior

In the spotted hyenas, the clan’s social life revolves or rotates around a communal den whilst some clans tend to use particular den sites for years and others may use several different dens within a year or several den sites simultaneously. These dens consist of more than a dozen entrances and are normally located on flat grounds and their tunnels oval in section, being wider than they are high and narrow down from an entrance. Dens have large bare patches around their entrances where hyenas move or lie down on, because of their size, adult hyenas are incapable of using the full extent of their burrows, as most tunnels are dug by cubs or smaller animals. Spotted hyenas rarely dig their own dens, having been observed for the most part to use the abandoned burrows of different animals like warthogs, jackals, hares and more. Faeces are normally deposited 20metres (66feet) away from the den, however they urinate wherever they happen to be. Dens are used mainly by several females at once, and it is not uncommon to see up to 2 metres in width, the height being rather less. 

Reproduction

Reproduction in spotted hyenas is polygamous and they are non-seasonal breeder, however a birth peak occurs during the wet season. Females are polyestrous, with an estrus period lasting nearly two weeks. The spotted hyena is promiscuous and no enduring pair bonds are formed and both sexes may copulate with several mates over the course of several years. Male spotted hyenas will display or show submissive behavior when approaching females in heat, even if the male over weighs or outweighs his partner and female normally favors younger males born or joined into the clan after they were born. Males perform a bowing display to females before mating, he lowers his muzzle to the ground, advances quickly towards the female, bows again and then paws the ground close at the hind quarters of the female. The female’s dominance assures that males are timid and will retreat immediately if the female displays any aggression and the female’s reproductive tract makes mating a bit difficult.  The gestation period is 4 months and females usually bear twins although 1 to 4 young are possible. The females give birth through their penis-like clitoris and during birth the clitoris ruptures to allow the young to pass through and the resulting wounds take several weeks to heal. Cubs are not weaned until they are between 14 and 18months of age and females are capable of producing a litter every 11 to 21 months. The newborn cubs weigh nearly from 1 to 1.6kg and are normally quite precocious being born with their eyes open. The age at sexual maturity is about three years, though some males may be sexually active at the age of two. Females are very protective of their young and do not tolerate other hyenas around their babies at first and males have not been reported to have any role in parental care.

Communication

The spotted hyena is well known for its wide variety of vocal communication including groans and soft squeals that are uttered during hyena greetings. A whoop is given out as a contact call where a fast whoop is uttered when excited at a kill. Usually males give the fast whoop calls often than the females but are generally ignored however female calls generally evoke much more of a reaction. Additionally a lowing call is used by impatient hyenas who are always kept waiting at a kill. Spotted hyenas also possess a complex set of postures in communication, like when threatened or afraid the ears are folded flat, and are usually followed with baring of the teeth and flattening of the mane. During any attack by either wild dogs or other hyenas, it lowers its hindquarters and during an allegation attack, the head is held high with the ears cocked, mouth closed, mane erect and the hindquarters high, the tail normally hangs down when neutral, though it changes position according to the situation.

Feeding

The spotted hyena is the most carnivorous member of the Hyaenidae. Hyenas have a reputation for being mostly scavengers, although this is not accurate since a study revealed 70% of the diet was composed of direct kills. Generally clans split up into hunting groups of 2 to 5 individuals and they eat a variety of items such as waterbucks, impalas, warthogs, topi, elands, hares, jackals to mention a few though zebras are hunted in larger groups. Spotted hyenas use their keen senses of hearing, sight and smell to hunt live prey to detect carrion from a far distance and at times, it chases its prey for long distance. Although they are aggressive mammals towards each other when feeding, they compete with each other frequently through speed of eating other than fighting each other as lions do.  In addition, they also hunt in regions of higher concentrations of prey and they do not require much water instead they normally spend approximately 30 seconds drinking.

Where to find them in Uganda

In Uganda the spotted hyena can be spotted during game drives in different national parks like Murchison falls national park, Kidepo valley national park, Queen Elizabeth national park and more.

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