The hyena (spelled "hyeana" in some parts of the world) 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.
Female spotted hyenas are dominant over the males and outweigh them by about 3 pounds. It is difficult to distinguish between the sexes in the field because external female genitalia have a superficial similarity to those of the male. Why the female hyena developed in this manner is unknown, but it may have been necessary for them to appear large and strong to protect their young from males, as hyenas have cannibalistic tendencies.
Spotted hyenas are found in grasslands, woodlands, savannas, subdeserts, forest edges and mountains.
Spotted hyenas are organized into territorial clans of related individuals. The center of clan activity is the den, where the cubs are raised and individuals meet. Hyenas mark and patrol their territories by depositing a strong-smelling substance produced by the anal glands on stalks of grass along the boundaries. "Latrines," places where members of a clan deposit their droppings, also mark territories. Hyenas are social animals that communicate with one another through specific calls, postures and signals.
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 5 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 1 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.
The spotted hyena is a skillful hunter but also an opportunistic scavenger. It consumes animals of various types and sizes, 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. The high mineral content of the bones hyenas consume make their droppings a highly visible, chalky white.