Spotted Hyaenas

The most common of the African carnivores, the spotted hyaena is the hunter-scavenger top dog with a curious sexual organisation.

Spotted hyena coat pattern.

Spotted hyena coat pattern.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Hyaenidae
Species: Crocuta crocuta


Spotted hyaenas are a widespread and common carnivore, found in most African habitats including savannah, grassland, woodland and forest, sub-deserts and even mountainous regions.

Although superficially quite similar to dogs, hyaenas are actually more closely related to cats and viverrids.

They measure in at between 1 and 1.7 metres in length and just under 1 metre in height at the shoulder, weighing in at between 40 and 90 kilograms depending on the region and available food. They have relatively short torsos, with sloping backs and powerful heads and necks.

Attenborough on Hyaenas


Despite their reputation as a scavenger, spotted hyaenas are skilful hunters and are able to chase and bring down large, powerful prey such as buffalo and zebra. However, they are still an opportunistic scavenger, consuming carrion and vegetation, as well as faeces!

Their powerful jaws and extremely potent digestive tract allow hyaenas to extract nutrients from the majority of what they consume. Apart from hair and horn, which is regurgitated, their stomach's hydrochloric acid can even break down bones.

Female hyaena and offspring.

Female hyaena and offspring.


Spotted hyaenas live in female-dominated clans where the subordinate males are limited to the role of mating partner.

With a large pseudo-penis, an extension of the clitoris, and an internal vaginal opening, females are able to remove the possibility of coercive sex from the males, thereby gaining an advantage over partner selection.

Female cubs are also delivered a dose of male hormone in the womb providing masculinisation of their behaviour and size, that coupled with their advantages in the sexual arms race cements their position as the clan leaders.

Find Out More


Like many other carnivores, hyaenas come into conflict with humans with regards to livestock. Cattle and other domestic animals are easy prey for these intelligent hunters and farmers will often kill hyaenas in retaliation.

In addition, human population, agriculture and urban expansion squeeze the available hyaena habitat and as such is slowly starting to take its toll on hyaenas.

Quick Facts

  • There are three hyeana species, including the spotted, brown and striped.
  • Listed as "Least Concern" by the IUCN.
  • Hyaenas originate in Asia, and ranged throughout Europe for a million years.
  • Carvings, paintings and fossil bones show that it once roamed Britain.