Caturday Special: Feliformia, Hyaenidae and Crocuta crocuta

A nice collective portrait of some feliforms – from top to bottom, left to right – The Madagascan fossa, the sand cat, the spotted hyena, the yellow mongoose and the binturong. The sand cat is the only true felid in this bunch. (Credit:kellinahandbasket Clément Bardot Yathin S Krishnappa & Tim Strater CC-BY-SA 2.0)

If there was such a thing as cat-like-urday I would release this on that day, but there isn’t. So we are going to talk about it now.

You see there are the true cats, the felidae, and then there are cat-likes, the Feliforms. Now all true cats are feliforms, but not all feliforms are true cats.

You’ve probably heard of the fossa if you’ve seen the movie ‘Madagascar’. Well the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) is a feliform in the family Eupleridae, this family is composed entirely of ‘cat-like’ species endemic (found only in a specific place) to Madagascar, the large island off the coast of South-East Africa. They are a clade (a natural group that can trace it’s lineage back to a common ancestor) closely related to the mongooses.

Oh, yeah. Mongooses are feliforms too! Along with meerkats, they are in the family Herpestidae, a family of cute, long, slinky things native to Africa, Southern Europe and Asia.

Sort-of Kitten tax! Baby meerkats, probably one of many people’s favourite feliforms. Despite the fact their society is actually a horrible, long, vicious, slut-shaming gang-war…(Credit: Francis C. Franklin CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Possibly the most cat-like family in the feliforms that isn’t a felid is the Viverridae. Some of these species probably look quite a lot like the proailurus of the past, the progenitor species of all cats. This family is mostly made of up civet and genet species, many of which seem almost like primitive cats, with long, slinky bodies, slightly more pointed heads and coats with distinctly feline patterns.

The common genet, Genetta genetta, looking like a cat that someone stretched the snoot of! Many civet and genet species exhibit coat patterns that are incredibly feline. (Credit: Guérin Nicolas CC-BY-SA 3.0)

But we’re not talking about them today. Instead we’re talking about the Hyaenidae family. It surprises people to find out these seemingly dog-like carnivores are actually more closely related to cats.

This has occurred through what is known as ‘convergent evolution’, whereby a species develops, independently, adaptations that another species already possess. Take wings and flight, for example, this has evolved convergently in insects, reptiles (in flying dinosaurs, the pterosaurs, I don’t believe there are any extant ‘flying’ reptiles), birds and mammals.

So the Hyaenidae developed these dog-like features from their own cat-like origins all by themselves and it becomes easy to see how they could be confused for canids.

There are four extant species of Hyena, the most famous is probably the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), there is also the brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea), the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and the aardwolf (Proteles cristata).

The four extant hyaenidae – from Top to bottom, left to right – The spotted hyena, the brown hyena, the striped hyena and the aardwolf. (Credit:
Termininja CC-BY-SA 4.0)

They all have a remarkable evolutionary history, stretching back around 22 million years, and the aardwolf is notable in its own right for being the most canid-like of the extant species, seeming to be directly related to the ancestral species, Plioviverrops, and representing what was an entire lineage of incredibly dog-or-wolf-like Hyaenas that likely existed until the true canids, from North America, found their way over into Eurasia.

However I want to focus specifically on Crocuta crocuta, the spotted or laughing hyena, probably the most well-known of all the hyena species.

The first thing I want to discuss is its hunting and diet. For one thing, the saggital crest (the mounting for the jaw muscles on the top and back of the head) is incredible. This would indicate an exceptionally powerful, crushing bite. The spotted hyena is from a lineage of ‘bone crushing’ hyenas, they are known to crunch through a carcass in about half an hour eating skin and bones that other predators may leave behind.

A spotted hyena skull. You can notice the sagittal crest, at the top of the skull and moving back. This is the area to which most of a carnivores jaw muscles are rooted and gives you a good idea of the power of their bite. Although not very prominant, the flat area on which muscle can be rooted, is exceptional. Running effectively from behind its eye sockets and to the protrusion at the back of the cranium, this flat area to plant your muscles helps give hyenas, pound for pound, one of the strongest carnivore bites. Those teeth help, too. The front teeth are mostly hunting teeth, used to latch on to prey – unlike true felids who would use their claws. This is one of the convergent evolutionary traits the hyena shares with dogs. As we move further back we see these conical, pointed, broad teeth – Pure bone-crushers! Finally, right at the back we have these large teeth known as carnassials, these are for shearing flesh. Tucking them away at the back means they don’t get damaged when the hyena is crunching through bones! (Credit: Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden CC-BY-SA 3.0)

There is a common trope that hyenas are little more than scavengers who go around stealing kills off of lions and cheetahs. Nothing could be further from the truth, whilst it is believed the brown and striped hyena are predominantly scavengers, the bulk of the spotted hyena’s diet is obtained from hunting. In fact they are remarkable and intelligent pack hunters.

Of course they exist on the plains of Africa where every day is a fight for survival, as the most numerous big carnivore on the continent they obtained that success by also being ruthlessly opportunistic and where an opportunity to steal a kill or scavenge carrion presents itself the spotted hyena will not hesitate to take it.

So even though a few people, and some documentaries, still present hyena’s as thieves and scavengers it has been well recorded, since the 1960s and 1970s, that the spotted hyena is at least as good a hunter as the lion, if not better.

A solitary lioness and a pack of spotted hyenas compete over a kill. While not certain, the fact that it is a large prey item, the hyenas are in a big pack, and they appear to be bloodied, would suggest that if they did not kill it, they at least found it first and it is this lioness who is trying to steal the kill. Prejudice does not just affect human interpretations of other humans. How many of you would see this photo and suspect the hyenas are trying to steal from the lion based merely on past presentation in media? (Credit: David Bygott CC-BY-NC 2.0)

As far as their prey goes they are also intelligent hunters, seeming to have little prey preference, but definitely things they avoid (such as buffalo and giraffe). True to their canid-style convergent evolution they are chase predators, making their prey prove themselves over distances of a few miles. They can reach speeds up to around 35mph but the main chase is probably a lot slower, around 10mph. It is behaviour not unlike the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus).

They hunt alone or in packs, naturally solo hunting tends to be on smaller prey such as gazelle or hogs, whilst pack hunting (from 3 all the way up to around 20-25 individuals!) is reserved for wildebeest or zebra, animals that attempt to defend themselves.

So if they hunt in packs it stands to reason they must have some social structure. They exist in semi-matriarchal (Sometimes males and females will co-dominate, though usually females outrank males) ‘clans’, depending on habitat these can be smaller or larger with an upper-limit seeming to be around 80 individuals. Males typically leave their matrilineal (their mother’s lineage) clan and go seek a spot elsewhere around 2 years.

A small pack of spotted hyena in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. (Credit: Thomas Fuhrmann CC-BY-SA 4.0)

They are not necessarily a close knit group, with the size and composition of the group changing over time, and smaller, splinter groups often going off hunting or scavenging on their own. This is known as fission-fusion, and is also found in species like elephants, whales and porpoise or even social primates like chimpanzees.

These societies, then, are complex. Recognition of clan members, who come and go, a social dynamic of dominance and subordinance, even nepotism, with the dominant female’s offspring generally being regarded higher than others, this is a complex social situation. Similar to social primates, then, hyenas exhibit great development of the frontal cortex of their brain, the area most associated with social behaviour and social intelligence. Observations by colonists in the 19th century noted their canny ability to evade or escape traps, utilising deceptive vocalisations to either scare others away from their kills or protect their young if they are in danger. Observational studies show spotted hyenas use a wide range of vocalisations to communicate, as well as olfactory (smell) signals, such as scent-marking.

Young hyenas playing. Even at this early age, social structure and heirarchy are recognised, with even adults showing submissive behaviours to the young of the dominant female – At least when she is around. When the dominant female is not available to protect her own young then things can be different! (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Studies on captive pairs of spotted hyena, by Christine Drea, an evolutionary anthropologist, even demonstrate that hyena are better at co-operative problem solving than even incredibly socially intelligent primates like chimpanzees! The study attached a food reward trap to a double-rope design where the ropes had to be pulled in unison in order to obtain the reward. Apparently the first pair of hyenas solved the problem within two minutes! She tried it with 13 other pairs and found that they very quickly learned to synchronise their pulling of the ropes and later examples done by hyena that had already done the exercise before showed they had a lower tendency to pull on the rope without their partner, exhibiting some understanding that the actions of the partner are vital in getting the reward.

Also quite telling is when competing, dominant females were put in the exercise together they often failed to cooperate!

Chimps and primates often require at least a reasonable amount of training to understand the exercise before they will demonstrate cooperation. The fact that spotted hyenas can independently come to a solution through a natural tendency to cooperate in order to obtain food is an astounding development in understanding animal cognition.

What this doesn’t necessarily mean is that spotted hyenas are smarter than chimps, merely that they exhibit cooperative problem solving skills that seem to be far and above our estimations of non-primate intelligence.

A decent profile of a spotted hyena. It looks somewhat ungainly but everything about its body is a honed adaptation. That broad neck, though, that’s special! That’s all power right there. Most true felids have strong upper-bodies, they wrestle their prey with their claws and paws and then use their jaws for the kill. Hyenas, like canids, wrestle with their mouths. A strong bite, and a strong neck to hold the prey, is vital. (Credit: Malcolm Manners CC-BY-2.0)

But I know what you’re thinking. “This is all actually informative and interesting. That’s not very We Lack Discipline. I assume you’re about to go on a long rant about persecution of animals or tell us how it eats its own shit.”

No I’m not.

..

What!? Spotted hyenas are of least concern to the IUCN, they’re very successful. Whilst human persecution occurs I actually trust hyenas to tell us where to go.

As for whether they are known for coprophagy (the scientific term for shit-eating) I don’t know. Maybe? It’s not a concern. I’m more mature than that.

…I AM!

Which is why, instead, I’m going to talk about the female and how they have an up to 7 inch clitoris known as the pseudo-penis! Big ol’ clitty ding-dongs! I’M MATURE!

Baby tax! Also genital tax! Three baby hyenas in the Kruger National Park. Now, Whilst males typically have the more rounded glans (dick-tip) the female pseudo-penis can exhibit a bulbous end. It’s so tough but it I had to guess I suspect the cub to the left may be female and the one of the right may be male. However, welcome to the world of sexing spotted hyenas. Due to the females having structures intended to mimic not only the penis, but the scrotum and testicles as well, it’s not easy! (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The spotted hyena takes androgyny very seriously to the point that the females have a clitoris that seems to mimic the male’s penis. It’s very rare that there is a species with remarkable genitals but the hyena, especially the female, is one. They have no vaginal opening, for example, because the labia are fused into a pseudo-scrotum! So how do they mate? Well at the end of the female’s oversized clit is a main urogenital opening, through which it urinates, mates and gives birth.

Yup, female spotted hyenas give birth through their fake dick-hole!

They can even get a lob-on! The pseudo-penis is capable of erection!

An anatomical diagram of male (Abb. 1.) and female (Abb. 2.) genitalia. Ignore most of the nitty-gritty detail and just marvel at how these two structures seem to so perfectly mimic each other. (Credit: Public Domain)

This should come as no surprise in a species where their sexual behaviour shows females to be massive doms – The female is dominant, and shows a clear preference to subservient or passive males more than aggressive ones. They are promiscuous, so have no specific mate bonding, and have no specific breeding season, although births tend to coincide with the wet season.

As you might imagine, giving birth through your dick-sized-clit is not an easy affair and usually this results in a rupture. Especially since hyena cubs are comparatively large!

A ruptured hyena clitoris after giving birth. This is a common occurance given that the female has to give birth out of an opening around 2.5cm in diameter to surprisingly large offspring. Ask a bloke who’s had kidney stones and they’ll tell you it’s hard enough pissing grit, never mind a baby. (Credit: © Oliver Honer, used without permission)

They can appear slightly unsightly. Their long, gangly legs (incidentally well adapted for hunting), their weird long necks (incredibly strong with good anchoring for their powerful bite, allowing them to grip prey), their sloped backs (excellent adaptation for escaping the claws of a lion by having it slip downward more often than not) and weirdly baldish faces (great hygiene for an animal unafraid to stick its head in some decomposing carrion) certainly do not make spotted hyenas the cutest looking of the feliforms.

But they are an absolutely incredible species, unfortunately much maligned by lion-friendly media such as wildlife documentaries or Disney’s ‘The Lion King’. Hyenas are not just giggling goofballs, or disgusting grave-robbers and thieves! They are a highly successful predator that happens to be smart enough to be relentlessly opportunistic. They are an intelligent and social animal with seemingly rich communication skills, cooperation skills and an ability to adapt. Spotted hyena variants were once common across Europe and Asia, and are believed to have mainly died out as a result of changing climate causing a change of habitat, a shrinking of their preferred grasslands and an increase in mixed woodlands in which their main competitors, wolves and humans, would have been a lot more comfortable than they were.

Their social behaviours alone make them a species well worth knowing, learning, understanding and studying and there is a lot we can learn about our notions of sex and gender, how we perceive ‘what nature intended’ from a species that gives birth out of its fake dick!

I think they suffer for their success, sort of like the saltwater crocodile. They’re not conventionally cute or appealing to us because of adaptations they have that make them good. They make weird noises, which make them socially more cohesive than other species. We are suspicious of their scavenging and carrion eating abilities but they’re opportunistic and intelligent, when food is scarce you take what you can get to survive and if that means digging up a human grave, nothing is sacred. They have also been known to hunt humans, and why not when we’re numerous and often easy prey?

I can’t say I find hyenas to be cute, but they have their moments. (Credit:
Becker1999 CC-BY-2.0)

They’re an incredible example of how, above all else, survival is key. There are plenty of cute species out there that have gone extinct. Many is the noble predator, with a clear preference for hunting a specific type of prey, who have disappeared off the face of the earth despite their so-called nobility, despite their perceived honour and despite any other virtuous traits we would bestow upon them. The spotted hyena is just good at surviving. In fact, it thrives at surviving!

I think we’re threatened by that.

Upset you didn’t get a true felid today? We have plenty of other cat articles for you to get your feline fix!

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.

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Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

16 thoughts on “Caturday Special: Feliformia, Hyaenidae and Crocuta crocuta

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