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The brown hyaena

20 March 2014


The brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea developed in South Africa and moved north. However, it is replaced ecologically by the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena in north-eastern Africa. It is known by several common names, especially in Afrikaans. Despite their dog-like appearance all hyaenas have developed from a civet-like ancestor as has the cats. Some 60 species of hyaena are known, some that date back to 11 to 7 million years ago, while fossil brown hyaenas lived during the mid-Pleistocene Period some 1.5 million years ago. At least 24 species of hyaena once concurrently roamed Eurasia and Africa. Today only four species exist.

The brown hyaena has been known as Hyaena brunnea ever since being described scientifically as such by Thunberg in 1820 based on a stuffed specimen in Cape Town (Western Cape province). No subspecies are recognized and in its range of distribution it is restricted to southern Africa. The genus Hyaena was coined in 1762 by Brisson after it was realized that the hyaenas were not members of the dog genus Canis which was originally used by Linnaeus to describe the striped hyaena as Canis hyaena in 1758.

In profile, the brown hyaena has the typical sloped build of all the hyaenas, being higher and more robust at the head and shoulders than at the rump. Large forefeet have developed to support the forward mass and this facilitates identifying a brown hyaena track. Adult males have a shoulder height of around 80 cm, a rump height of 74 cm and a mean weight of around 47 kg as opposed to the slightly smaller females with a mean weight of around 42 kg. however, this difference in size between the sexes is not always prominent. The heaviest male in the Kalahari on record weighed 49.5 kg and the heaviest female 45.5 kg.

The dark brown to almost black coat is furry and there is a white mantle which extends well onto the shoulders and forward to the sides of the forehead. The bushy tail tassle is dark brown to black and the broad black muzzle is hairless. The under parts and insides of the legs are a pale tawny-white to dirty white. The ears are some 14 cm long and are carried erect. Unlike the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta the testes are clearly visible externally below the anus. The teeth and large jaw muscles are adapted for cracking large bones and to grind food.

The brown hyaena is confined to southern Africa. In South Africa it occurs widely but sparsely in the Limpopo, the North West, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Gauteng provinces, but breeding populations no longer occur in the Kruger National Park. However, the brown hyaena is more abundant in the semi-arid Nama-Karoo, Succulent Karoo, Kalahari and Richtersveld areas. Only an occasional brown hyaena now occurs in the Western Cape Province where the first specimen in South Africa was collected.

The habitat of choice is the more arid portions of the grasslands and savannas of southern Africa, and the brown hyaena can occur in regions receiving less than 100 mm of rainfall per year. Suitable cover in which to lie up by day is important and in arid regions the deep shade of the shepherd’s tree Boscia albitrunca is excellent for this. Surface water is not required although brown hyaenas will drink water when it is available. They make ample use of moisture-rich wild fruits such as the tsamma melon Citrullus lanatus and gemsbok cucumber Acanthosicyos naudianus. They survive extreme cold through the insulation of their shaggy coats and do better in cold regions than the spotted hyaena.

Solitary foraging is the norm although brown hyaenas live in dens in clans that have fixed territories. The clan size fluctuates often. The territory size varies regionally from 18 to 420 km². The clan is socially organized in a strict hierarchy. The sense of smell is particularly well developed and the large ears facilitate an acute sense of hearing. Territorial males migrate for hundreds of kilometres.

Scent-marking is used and this involves pasting glandular secretions from the anal pouches onto objects as they move around to leave scent marks of their presence over the entire area. The rate of pasting increases on the territory or range borders. The paste consists of two types: a long-lasting white paste with a strong odour for defence of the territory against any possible strange brown hyaenas, and a less long-lasting dark paste which allows members of the same clan to keep contact with each other. Brown hyaenas also defecate in latrines that tend to be more concentrated around the territory boundary. These latrines are shaped like a saucer, are around 1 m in diameter an 15 cm deep and may be used for many years. The brown hyaena is more quiet than the spotted hyaena and does not have its characteristic whooping call.

Brown hyaenas are predominantly scavengers and rarely hunt small prey, being largely unsuccessful even when hunting. Foraging is done erratically over distances of up to 50 km per night. Their secondary diet includes a wide range of small mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and eggs. Most of their food consists of scavenged pieces of bone and scraps of meat which they eat alone. Large bones are difficult to break but they crack them and then break them into pieces which they then grind with the molars. Fur seal colonies provide an excellent source of carcasses for scavenging along the arid coastal parts of southern Africa. Some 7 to 8 kg of food is eaten at a time in contrast to 18 kg by spotted hyaenas. Excesses of food may also be cached under bushes, in stands of tall grass and sometimes in burrows for later use, usually within 72 hours. Brown hyaenas also carry food to their young at a communal den.

Lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, spotted hyaenas and caracals are avoided but the greatest competitor for food is the black-backed jackal. A few individual brown hyaenas become adept at killing small livestock and cattle calves but when the individual involved is removed this usually stops.

Reproduction is not seasonal and mating occurs at any time ot the year. The dominant males form consort groups that copulate for up to six nights with all the adult females of a clan but the dominant female produces most of the cubs. All the adult females of a clan will bring food to the cubs of the dominant female. Gestation lasts 97 days and the mean litter size is 2.3 cubs but it varies from one to five. The cubs are born in a den with closed eyes and their ear pinnae folded back. They are covered with short hair which is the same colour as an adult. The eyes begin to open when they are eight days old and are fully open when they are 14 days old. The ears only become erect when they are 28 days old. The young cubs are carried regularly to new dens by their mother until they are two months old but from an age of six months the cubs move on their own. More than one litter may be found in a communal den, usually being those of a female and her daughter. The female has two pairs of inguinal mammae. Suckling starts to decrease when the cubs are three months old but they may suckle until they are a year or more old. They are only fully weaned when they are 15 months old when they leave the den to forage alone. Most males disperse from their natal clan when they are 36 to 40 months old.



Mills, M G L 1990. Kalahari hyaenas. London: Unwin.

Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 365 - 370.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma


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