The spotted hyena is the largest group in this small family of mammals of which there are only four subspecies. Its range was once throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. With the changing climate associated with the last Ice Age and the subsequent growth of large woodlands, hyenas couldn't compete with wolves and humans.Their range shrunk back to the grasslands of Africa, and the semi-deserts of the Middle East and South Asia.
For many years, hyenas were thought to be opportunistic scavengers stealing prey from other hunting animals when and wherever they could muster their forces and mount an attack. With the invention of night-seeing cameras, it became readily apparent that hyenas hunted proficiently all during the night. The well-disciplined packs targeted herd animals and attacked their prey with efficiency and skill. Biologists were particularly amazed to see that a pack of hyenas could and often did intimidate and scare off a pride of lions.
"His name is Ed," said Monterey Zoo director Charlie Sammut as we approached the spotted hyena's cage. "At least, we think it's Ed." Sammut's comment means much to anyone who knows about hyenas.Both sexes appear to have male genitals. "It's a curious animal as the female's appendage also serves as a birth canal."
"The hair on a hyena actually grows backward toward the head [unlike all other mammals]," he said. "Their front legs are longer than their back legs.They are born with a full set of teeth and with their eyes open. It's and extremely matriarchal society." Their lower and rounded rumps make it harder for attackers to get a firm grip on them. When fleeing an aggressor, a hyena will tuck its tail under its belly again preventing anything to bite or grab it.
"Hey, what's that all about?" Sammut said, and pulled his hand back quickly. Sammut had done this with the lions, tigers, and nearly every other furry creature in the zoo. Ed appeared to sniff his fingers and then suddenly lunged forward and snapped at his hand. Ed let out that characteristic sinister funny.
"That's why we don't trust him," Sammut said. "Very, very dangerous animals. They don't have molars in the back of their jaws. All their teeth act like scissors and they actually eat everything. Strong and powerful animals." Hyenas are known as true bone crunchers.
The zoo could do a blood test to determine Ed's sex but Sammut feels they have no reason to doubt he's a male. "He's a little small and females get larger."
"We've had him since he was a baby. He was born black. They get their spots later, again unlike any other animal. They are very hard to house. They go through almost anything. We've had to weld the chain link down below. We've tried every type of den box imaginable. Now we're giving him a culvert and he's eating that." Sammut turned to Ed again and said, "So, you're a little crazy today. Yes, you are."
The zoo gives Ed a new log every week. "Everything we give him he eats."
The more aggressive cubs, especially in same sex litters, will often kill their more passive litter mates.
A group of hyenas is called a clan and the clan usually has an alpha female at its head. The clans can be large containing up to 80 males but in most instances especially where the prey is migratory, they are more likely to be around 15 to 20 animals. Both sexes freely mate with one another. Curiously, the females prefer males with more passive behaviors and the older females are more attracted to experienced males with whom they've had close relationships in the past.
Growls and laughs and eery chuckles were nonstop as we walked near Ed's cage.
The zoo plans to nearly quintuple Ed's exhibit space in the near future which should keep this wild savannah animal better entertained.
"He'll have running water, a pool and a waterfall.This is going to be a very fun exhibit. He's going to have culverts through which he can go back and forth between each exhibit area," he said. In the wild, hyenas often dig shallow dens in the ground to rest during the heat of the day.
In order to protect a very large tree on that part of the property, they plan to build a corridor for Ed to go back and forth through. This will protect the tree and allow it to provide some shade.
"It will also allow us to isolate him if we have to for some reason,'" Sammut said.
Keeping hyenas healthy means keeping them from getting bored. They outperform chimpanzees in their ability to learn quickly and have little problem passing on the "trick to get to the food" to other hyenas.
They are among the most widely studied of all African animals, partly because of the many ways they differ from other mammals.