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Notorious for their wailing, cackling cry, cowardly habits and ugly looks, the hyena has the lowest cuteness factor of all African animals. However, its ugly form, unpleasant feeding habits and weird cackling call should not discourage our curiosity. Indeed, they have among the most interesting biology of all carnivores.

There are three species, the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta, Fisi) is the commonest, and widespread through most of sub-Saharan Africa. The much rarer striped hyena ( Hyaena hyaena) sports a prominent mane and is found in the north of the continent to the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts. The brown hyena ( H. brunnea) has the smallest range, in southern Africa south of the Zambesi.

Hyenas are medium-sized animals, up to 150 pounds (60 kg), rather bigger than a large domestic dog. They live quite long, between ten and twenty years. Hyena pups are born in litters of five or six, after four months gestation.

Unmistakable and unforgettable hyenas have sloping backs and a peculiar shambling gait. Hyenas are often present with jackals to scavenge on the kills left by the big cats or on carcasses of diseased animals.

Actually, they are not at always cowardly and often grab food from a carcase even while lions are busily feeding. When carrion is scarce, hungry hyenas will gang up against larger animals, especially wildebeest, zebra or domestic cattle. Like hunting dogs in this habit, although they do not chase their prey, the hyenas also eat their victim alive and the poor animal has a slow miserable death.

The jaws of hyena are unpleasant to contemplate. The animal is renowned for its incredibly powerful bite, which can easily crush the thigh bone of a buffalo, to get nutritious marrow. A hyena bite can be as deadly as that of a venomous snake. The mouth is home to abundant colonies of highly pathogenic bacteria which rapidly infect a wound and hasten putrefaction. Treatment must be immediate to avoid a serious case of gangrene.

Hyena reproductive biology is a unique tale of natural history. Originally, it was believed than hyenas changed sex, from male to female or back. This myth is due to the fact that the female hyena genitalia are exceptionally similar to the male penis in size and form.

Hyenas have a filthy scruffy appearance because of skin parasite infestations and their habit of rolling in mud to relieve the irritation. Motorists often disturb them during the rainy season, when hyenas like to get their mud bath in the wheel ruts of roads.

The spotted hyena is distributed over much of sub-Saharan Africa and despite its nocturnal habits is often encountered in the daytime.


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