Brown Hyenas: Some Facts and Photos

Note: these photos courtesy of Dr. M.G.L. Mills. Please do not copy them without his permission.

hyenas greetinghyenas greeting
hyenas greetinghyenas greeting

Here, a brown hyena family engages in a greeting ceremony. Female brown hyenas don't have the grossly enlarged clitorises of spotted hyenas, so greeting is more like what dogs do, with sniffing of each other's anal regions.

Dr. Mills once saw a brown hyena eating the week-old carcass of its own mother. But brown hyena family life has its good points, too -- it's much more peaceful than spotted hyena family life, because the cubs don't fight nearly as much. The older pups help to guard the younger pups, sounding the alarm in case a lion or other threat approaches.

Brown hyenas, like spotted hyenas, mark with their anal glands -- but they have two types of secretions, not one. This one was collared as part of a research project.

hyena scent-markinghyena scent-marking
hyena scent-markinghyena scent-marking

The brown hyena is perhaps the biggest mammal that makes most of its living off scavenging -- a rarity among land-bound life forms larger than insects. Even more surprisingly, it manages to make a living this way in an arid habitat without great herds of herbivores, where carcasses must be few and far between. It's easy to see why its range is now so limited; harder to see how it evolved in the first place. Perhaps it was not always as dependent upon carrion as it is now.

The one below is pulling on the carcass of a gemsbok, a big antelope native to the Kalahari desert.

hyena feedinghyena feeding
hyena feedinghyena feeding

Brown hyenas will also vary their diet with fruit, however -- the local species of melon is a favorite treat.

Each animal forages alone most of the time, because their food -- carrion, seashore pickings and fruit -- is usually found in small quantities and doesn't have to be killed by a pack. When brown hyenas collect in groups, it's mostly at the den site, though several may come together at a big carcass to feed.

hyenas fightinghyenas fighting
hyenas fightinghyenas fighting

Here, two brown hyenas are in a minor scrap. Brown hyenas do fight over territory, but the battles are usually less vicious than those of spotted hyenas. Territory belongs to the clan, a loose-knit family of related females and their male mates. Females seem to be dominant, but not nearly as aggressively so as spotted hyena females.

My grateful thanks to Dr. Mills, who loaned me these photos for this site.