Spotted Hyenas

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Motion blur of a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) bolting across a grassy field just after daybreak. This was the first hyena of the clan we were able to see yesterday. While looking out across the escarpment I spotted a small distant figure with large ears running straight towards our vehicle. The top-heavy bouncing strides were unmistakable, and its body features quickly began to take form — a long thick neck, spotted coat, and a muscular head bearing sharp canine teeth. The hyena veered away and continued steadily on its mission, pointing us in the direction of its brethren no more than a few kilometers away.

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A slender young spotted hyena slinks out from the trees at dawn. This particularly attractive individual was one of six or more that we found racing in and out of cover this morning. At 2am last night we also got footage of a hyena in our backyard — soon I’ll be sharing many more photos and videos of these striking animals that are usually difficult to observe at close distances here at Mpala. As I’m writing this, a hyena is performing its characteristic loopy howl nearby. After months of futile attempts at encountering hyenas up close, no matter how close the call, it was so exciting to share a few moments with these elusive and unique creatures.

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Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are highly misunderstood animals. In popular culture, they are portrayed as the villains, skulking in the darkness to rob kills from lions — a behavior that in the first place shouldn’t make an animal somehow inferior or “malicious.” But in the case of the hyena, this depiction is simply inaccurate. Hyenas and their clans are incredibly successful hunters, cooperatively surrounding and taking down small to large animals including antelope, zebra, and wildebeest. In all populations studied (as far as I’m aware), meat from hunting makes up the majority of their diet, as opposed to scavenging. In fact, predatory cats such as lions and leopards steal kills from hyenas much more frequently, so the story is very much flipped. Funnily enough, here in Laikipia pastoralists often blame the leopards for preying on their cattle during the night, and more often than not, hyenas (or lions) are actually the culprits!

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Probably the most incredible fact about spotted hyenas is the presence of a “pseudopenis” in females. This structure is so similar in appearance to male hyena genitalia that it is difficult to tell the sexes apart. There are several theories as to why female hyenas have this anatomical characteristic. Female hyenas are dominant over males and secrete high levels of androgens (e.g. testosterone), so the male-like genitalia may have simply arisen as a byproduct of these hormone levels. On the other hand, it might be of adaptive significance. Because of the morphology of the female’s genitalia, copulation by force is not possible by males, which allows females to completely dictate who contributes genetic material to her offspring. Female hyenas remain in their natal group as opposed to males who disperse, making female competition an important factor in determining fitness within a single clan. So, the male appearance might also serve as a sort of camouflage to conspecifics, in which juvenile or subadult females might be subject to fewer antagonistic interactions within their clans. For example, adult females would be less likely to commit infanticide on young hyenas who are not her own offspring, and competition between siblings would be at lower levels — all because it is more unclear who exactly an individual is competing against in producing offspring. The female pseudopenis also has its complications. Because of the narrow urogenital canal, both the female and her offspring are at risk during the time the mother gives birth. Astonishingly, up to 15% of mothers die when giving birth for the first time, and over half of the first offspring die at birth. Such a high cost for this unique and bizarre female anatomy.

All hyenas photographed in situ / during pursuit [1-3]

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Extremely blurry photo of a striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), my biggest blunder from Kenya. Clearly the low light photo did not handle my excitement very well! I was so struck by the large size of this hyena while on a night drive. All of a sudden seeing this hyena five meters from the car felt almost like a supernatural experience. Striped hyenas and aardwolves have eluded me in terms of photography— until next time!

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