Published: June 2005

Hyenas

Hyena Eating

Bad rap

Behind the snarl lies a cagey opportunist, proficient hunter, and dutiful parent.

By Chris Carroll
National Geographic Writer
Photograph by Anup and Manoj Shah

Bloodstained from feeding, an adult female is greeted on her return to the den by two cubs that may or may not be her own. Spotted hyena clans are matriarchal, with females dominating groups of 80 or more animals. Clans often splinter into smaller cells, reassembling days or weeks later. To help ease the reintegration process, hyenas of all ages, ranks, and sexes engage in ceremonial one-on-one greetings. Hierarchical in all things, hyena etiquette usually requires the submissive animal to initiate the greeting.

Mile after mile the chase goes on. The gazelle tires, but not the spotted hyenas in pursuit. With a final surge of speed, the predators spring upon the flagging prey, drag it down, and disembowel it. Then a roar echoes across the East African savanna. The hyenas flee their feeding as a male lion takes over the kill. The thwarted hunters skulk nearby with empty bellies.

Hyenas have an undeserved reputation as thieves and scavengers that subsist on the leavings of the larger predator. "But it is far more frequent that the lion will steal a kill from the hyenas," says Kay Holekamp of Michigan State University. Biologists have known this for decades, she laments, yet hyenas are still viewed as "slobbering, mangy, stupid poachers" (not to mention goose-stepping fascists) in The Lion King, the movie that for many has defined the species.

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