Two large inquisitive eyes stared up at me like big black buttons fixed to a rather scruffy but adorable face. It’s been a while since I’ve been this close to a hyena cub, I thought. I’d forgotten just how delightful it is in their presence! We (photographer Em Gatland and I) were in the Okavango Delta, on a game drive with Luke, our ranger from Wilderness Safari’s Vumbura Plains Camp.
The spotted hyena cub had bits of grass and leaves stuck to its fur and there was a tuft of gingery hair between its mickey-mouse ears. Something about it melted me instantly! Hey little one, can I cuddle you? … but it’s MUCH more likely it would prefer a game of rough-and-tumble (or biting off my toes, if they were in reach! ) Instead, the cub investigated our tyres. It wasn’t long before a whole gang of curious scruff-lings came to join their sibling – padding and bounding towards us while sniffing the air with wide-eyed curiosity. When they lost interest in this (the cubs didn’t seem to have very long attention spans!) they began rolling, nipping and chewing on each other – no doubt testing their strength and honing in on their predatory instincts. One day these little fellows would be hunters in their own right and we were watching them on their first training ground. This kind of rough play is also a way of bonding with each other – cohesion in a clan is important for survival and hyenas are highly social animals.
We witnessed another remarkable bonding ritual when a female adult appeared, probably returning from a kill. The jubilant youngsters bounded up to her and instantly began sniffing her genitals. “This is the normal way for hyenas to greet and recognise one another within a family group.” Luke explained, “Letting each other close to this vulnerable part of their bodies is a sign of trust.”
A female spotted hyenas’ genitals are very unusual because they are elongated and look just like a male’s. With this elastic pseudopenis they urinate, mate, and give birth. I recently read a research article about Kay Holekamp, a zoologist who has studied hyenas in Kenya’s Masai Mara for over 15 years, and she believes that there is a link between female hyena dominance in the species’ social structure and the female’s oddly male biological structure, “the most obvious advantage of these bizarre structures is power over reproduction. For a male, mating is impossible without full female cooperation. And if a female changes her mind about a male after mating, the elongated reproductive tract lets her flush out the sperm by urinating.”
In the hyena world, the women are in charge! Every hyena clan is ruled by an alpha female and this hierarchy is passed on to her daughters. If she has more than one female cub at a time, the girls will engage in fierce sibling rivalry until the weaker cub submits to her stronger sister. Because hyenas can reproduce all year around, there will often be a few different aged litters at the same time, born from sisters, although the dominant female with reproduce most often.
For a male hyena, clan life is a bit more challenging, “Adult males rank last. They must swallow abuse even from the most obnoxious juveniles or risk violent punishment from female coalitions. At a communal carcass, adult males eat last—if there’s anything left. When a male kills dinner on his own, he must gorge quickly before female clan members shove him aside.” says Holecamp.
I find the dynamics of spotted hyena social life incredibly interesting, they are such highly intelligent animals!
Kay Holecamp also says that she is continually amazed by what great mothers hyenas are. “Once you’ve seen a female delicately carrying babies in those great bone-crushing jaws, you realize what wonderful mothers they are.” (Hyenas really DO have incredibly powerful teeth and jaws. A hungry pack can reduce a 450-kilogram zebra to a pile of hooves in less than 25 minute!).
Although the cubs were too old to need carrying, they absolutely LOVED snuggling against their mother while suckling and she was incredibly patient and loving.
It was another phenomenal game drive at Vumbura Plains, experiencing unmatched intimacy with the wild African bush. Thank you Wilderness Safaris and