Spotted Hyena

  • SCIENTIFIC NAME: Crocuta crocuta

  • SWAHILI NAME: Fisi madoa; Kikuto; Kingugwa

The spotted hyena—largest of the hyenas—possesses a dog-like muzzle, spotted fur, and loping gait. Although spotted hyenas kill more than 90 percent of their food, they are also successful kleptoparasites—cunning thieves that steal the kills of other predators. Their massive teeth and jaw muscles allow them to shatter bone, and specialized digestive adaptations remove all the protein and fat from bone, all of which enables their hyper-carnivorous lifestyle. Large hearts and the ability to efficiently lose heat allow spotted hyenas to chase prey over long distances, then instantly devour their kill. They do not reach their full feeding ability until sexual maturity at two years of age.

Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena



Daily Rhythm




Life span

In wild: Insufficient data
In captivity: 40 years

Conservation Status

Lower risk


Male: 119 to 154 lb (54 to 70 kg)
Female: 121 to 179 lb (55 to 81 kg)


Male: 30.5 to 34.0 in (77.5 to 87.0 cm) high at shoulder
Female: 29 to 33 in (73.5 to 84.5 cm) high at shoulder

Spotted Hyena

Listen to the sounds of the Spotted Hyena

Tracks and Scat

Tracks: Slightly larger than those of a striped hyena
Scat: Use latrines; droppings are green when fresh, white when older due to mineral and bone content.

Spotted Hyena tracks

Trivia Question

When do hyenas “laugh?”


Hyenas produce their famous “laugh” when they’re nervous—such as when they’re challenging a lion or signaling submission to another hyena.

Social Structure

Female and male spotted hyenas have separate social hierarchies, but all females outrank all males. A clan can have as few as 3 individuals or as many as 90. The amount of available prey in an area determines clan size. Female spotted hyenas stay with the clans where they were born and inherit their rank from their mothers. Males immigrate to unrelated clans. An immigrant male assumes the lowest rank in his new clan. In male hierarchy, rank increases as older or resident males die or leave the clan. To maintain stability, males form alliances with those nearest them in rank. To form alliances and maintain the social structure, both sexes engage in ritualized greeting ceremonies. Two individuals stand parallel to each other, but face opposite directions, then the higher ranking individual inspects the genital region of the lower ranking member.


Each member of a clan helps defend the territory, using vocalizations, scent marking, and boundary patrols. Resident males lead the boundary patrols, while adult females are usually the ones using vocalizations and scent marking. Spotted hyenas produce a fatty secretion in their anal glands, which they drag along vegetation to produce a scent mark. Clan members share chemical signatures, so they can identify their clan’s marker. A member’s response depends on the rank of that individual. Similarly, each individual makes a distinct, loud whoop that it uses to gather clan members. High-ranking individuals use this call more frequently than others, though they all emit the canonical hyena “laugh.”


Spotted hyenas lead nocturnal lives, but remain active during dawn and dusk and will occasionally forage during the day. These hyenas rest in dense vegetation or in burrows during the day to stay cool. Although territorial, some spotted hyena populations will leave their clan’s territory and travel extensive distances to hunt and find water.


Spotted hyena populations are stable within protected areas, however they are declining beyond the boundaries of these areas due to human persecution. Populations of spotted hyenas are highly vulnerable to poisoning, wire snares, and vehicle hits. In some parts of Africa, live hyenas are used for witchcraft, and their bodies are used for traditional medicines.

Range & Habitat

Spotted hyenas historically inhabited nearly all of Africa and Eurasia, however their current distribution is limited to south of the Sahara. Like most other wildlife, these hyenas have been eradicated in West Africa, but substantial populations still exist in East and southern Africa.

Spotted hyenas commonly live near human settlements. Their preferred habitats include semi-desert, savanna, open woodland, dense dry woodland, and mountainous habitats, but not equatorial forest.


Voracious predators, spotted hyenas feed on all herbivores, including wildebeest, African buffalo, zebras, gazelles, and impalas. They prefer prey with a body mass between 123 and 401 pounds (56 to 182 kg), but will kill larger prey, including giraffes, juvenile hippopotamuses, elephants, and rhinos, if the opportunity arises. Spotted hyenas consume all of their prey, including the bones. The acidic digestion of spotted hyenas is adapted to extracting nutrients from bones, which causes the pale color of their feces. On average, an adult spotted hyena eats about 4.4 to 8.8 pounds (2 to 4 kg) of food each day. They track prey using sight, hearing, and odor. Spotted hyenas can chase prey long distances at speeds reaching up to 37 miles per hour (60 kph).


The communal den exists at the center of spotted hyena social life. A clan may have more than one communal den in its a territory, and members may use the same communal den site for many years or shift between a few sites. Spotted hyenas modify burrows dug by warthogs, aardvarks, or bat-eared foxes. The entrance is enlarged to accommodate female hyenas, but the underground burrow is kept small so that only the cubs can enter. This helps to protect the young from predators and the possibility of infanticide by other hyenas. A female may mate with multiple males during a single estrous cycle. Her resulting offspring may have different fathers, even within one litter. Young females tend to avoid mating with older males, as they are more likely to be related. Males will implement dramatic tactics to mate with a female—everything from excessive harassment to long-term friendly behavior. Spotted hyenas have litters of one, two, or, rarely, three offspring following a gestation period of 110 days. Female spotted hyenas invest a lot of energy in their young. At birth, cubs have black coats and weigh about 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg). Their front teeth are fully erupted at birth, and their neuromuscular development is advanced compared to that of other carnivores. Siblings in a litter fight violently to establish a dominance hierarchy when they are only a few days old. Spotted hyena milk has the highest protein content of any terrestrial carnivore. The highest ranking sibling gains greater access to milk when resources are low. The lowest ranking sibling frequently starves. The young of high ranking females have an advantage because they have access to meat more often and at a younger age than offspring of low ranking females. The young remain in the den until they are 12 months old and are weaned at 14 to 18 months.

Friends & Foes

Lions and humans are the most dangerous enemies of spotted hyenas. Male lions go out of their way to kill hyenas, but they seldom eat them.

Population in Kenya & Beyond

The estimated total global population of spotted hyenas ranges between 27,000 and 47,000. The largest spotted hyena population, estimated at 7,700 to 8,700, is in the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem in Tanzania and Kenya.

Spotted Hyena

Did you know?

Female genitalia in spotted hyenas mimic the external male genitalia, resulting in apparent hermaphroditism.