|Hyenas are social animals|
|Wednesday, 18 July 2012 00:00|
Today, we introduce a new column for the benefit of several teens who might not have access to knowledge to our wildlife. It takes a lot of reading and travelling into the bushes to understand our animals.
Africans in general have misconceptions about hyenas and often than not, associate them with witchcraft.
The major reason is that it is difficult to distinguish male and female hyenas by observation in the field.
They are not hermaphrodites (having both male and female sexual organs), nor can they change their sex at will, as many people believe.
Although the external female genitals have superficial similarity to those of the male, they are nonetheless female organs and only the females bear and nurse the young.
Why the female hyena developed in this manner is not clear, but it may have been necessary for them to appear large and strong to protect their young from males, as hyenas have cannibalistic tendencies.
Hyenas make a variety of vocalisations, including wailing calls, howling screams and the well-known “laughter” used to alert other clan members up to 5km away of a food source. Hyenas eat a great variety of animal products, vegetation and, according to campers, even aluminum pots and pans.
Hyenas are social animals that communicate with one other through specific calls, postures and signals.
They quickly make their various intentions known to other members of the clan, or to outsiders. When a hyena’s tail is carried straight, for example, it signals attack. When it is held up and forward over the back, the hyena is extremely excited.
In contrast, it hangs down when the hyena is standing or walking leisurely.
If frightened, the hyena tucks its tail between the legs and flat against the belly and usually skulks away, like a dog.
Hyenas are organised into territorial clans of related individuals that defend their home ranges against intruding clans.
The centre of clan activity is the den, where the cubs are raised and individuals meet.
The den is usually situated on high ground in the central part of the territory.
The den’s above-ground entrances are connected to a series of underground tunnels.
Hyenas mark and patrol their territories by depositing a strong-smelling substance produced by the anal glands on stalks of grass and stunted tree branches along the boundaries.
“Toilets” — places where members of a clan deposit their droppings — also mark territories.
The high mineral content of the bones hyenas consume make their droppings a highly visible, chalky white.
The hyena is Africa’s most common large carnivore. Over the years hyenas and humans have come into close contact in Africa and, in earlier times, in Asia and in Europe, often leading to mutual predation.
In ancient Egypt hyenas were domesticated, fattened and eaten, and in turn humans have on occasion become food for hyenas.
Reputed to be cowardly and timid, the hyena can be bold and dangerous, attacking animals and humans. Of the three species of hyena in Africa, only the spotted hyena and the shy and much rarer, striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) are found in East Africa.
The smaller, and even shyer brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) occurs only in Southern Africa (Wikipedia).
Different from most other animals, female spotted hyenas are dominant over the males and outweigh them by about 1,5kg.
The hyena is a skilful hunter but also a scavenger. It is truly an opportunistic feeder, it selects the easiest and most attractive food it may ignore fresh carrion and bones if there is, for example, an abundance of vulnerable wildebeest calves.
It consumes animals of various types and sizes (including domestic stock and even other hyenas), carrion, bones, vegetable matter and other animals’ droppings.
The powerful jaws and digestive tract of the hyena allow it to process and obtain nutrients from skin and bones.
The only parts of prey not fully digested are hair, horns and hooves; these are regurgitated in the form of pellets. As hyenas hunt mostly at night and devour all parts, little evidence remains of their actual meals. Although they eat a lot of dry bones, they need little water.
Hyenas usually bear litters of two to four cubs, which, unlike the other two species, are born with their eyes open.
Cubs begin to eat meat from kills near the den at about five months, but they are suckled for as long as 12 to 18 months, an unusually long time for carnivores.
This is probably a necessity, as most kills are made far from the den, and hyenas, unlike jackals and hunting dogs, do not bring back food and regurgitate it for their young.
At about one year, cubs begin to follow their mothers on their hunting and scavenging forays. Until then, they are left behind at the den with a babysitting adult.
l Ephraim Guvamombe is a Lower Six student at Mushumbe High School, Guruve. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org