Colours of Wildlife - The Brown Hyena

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Willem, formerly known as 'The Return of The Unmentionable Marauding Pillowcase' is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

A brown hyena.

The Brown Hyena

The Brown Hyena is one of just four surviving species constituting the Hyena family, the others being the Striped Hyena, the Spotted Hyena, and the Aardwolf. Brown Hyenas today only occur in Southern Africa, from the southwestern corner of Angola down to the Orange (Gariep) River of South Africa. Some may still occur in the Karoo region of South Africa, but if so, only a few. They do not occur where their cousins the Spotted Hyenas are common – those are bigger and stronger and outcompete them. In dry regions, however, the Brown Hyena survives more easily than the Spotted. Perhaps 'easily' isn't the right word … life in the desert has its hardships for everything that exists there. But Brown Hyenas are tough and resourceful enough to manage.

In Afrikaans this hyena is also called the 'Strandjut' or 'Strandwolf'. This refers to its habit of 'beach-combing'. It occurs along the entire length of the coastline of the Namib Desert, where there's almost nothing to eat except for the carcasses of seals and other marine mammals, or other things that wash up on the beach.

In appearance they are easily recognized as hyenas: the short, powerful, dog-like head, the body with the shoulders higher than the rump. They differ from Spotted Hyenas in being somewhat smaller, brownish, with stripes (sometimes faint) on the limbs, and with a shaggy 'cape' of long fur on the neck and back. Some people are surprised at this long hair in an animal that occurs in hot regions – but actually, the deserts are both hot and cold … very hot in the day, but cooling off rapidly during the night. And Brown Hyenas are mainly active during the nights. In the daytime they rest up in a cool, shady place such as under a dense thorny bush.

During their nightly patrols they cover vast distances, each brown hyena 'clan' having its own, very large, territory. The 'clan' typically consists of a small number of closely related adults with their young and perhaps a few older 'kids'. Their territories are vast … from 19 to 480 square kilometers. The adult hyenas patrol this territory individually, looking for food as far as they go … they can cover 1 to 54 km in a single night, and can smell carrion from a distance of several kilometres. During such patrols they regularly leave their marks … scents from anal glands, and also dung deposited in conspicuous piles as a visual sign. Hyena dung is white, due to all the bones that they chew up and digest. A single hyena leaves as many as 145 000 'tokens' of its presence in its territory each year. A single foraging trip might last several days, the hyena sleeping in a different place each day.

Some male Brown Hyenas are solitary, not belonging to any clan.

Unlike the larger Spotted Hyena, this species is more of a scavenger and less of a hunter. When they cannot find large carcasses, they will feed on small animals or even fruits. They are fond of ostrich eggs.

Females of the clan don't usually mate with members of the clan – this risking 'inbreeding' – but rather, with outside, wandering males. Sometimes such an outsider will join the clan to mate with the females. Mothers give birth to up to three young. They are born blind, deaf and helpless. The mother stays with them for a while as the entire clan helps out by bringing food back to the den. The cubs suckle for an entire year, but start eating meat at three months' age.

These are not 'laughing' hyenas; quiet most of the time, they sometimes growl and yell when they fight, and the cubs whine when begging for food.

Hyenas look somewhat dog-like, but they actually belong to the cat-branch of the Carnivore family tree. Their ancestors were small predators similar to the civets … these being the probable ancestors of cats as well. They split off the civet-branch about 25 million years ago. Ancient hyenas were much more diverse than the living species, feeding on a variety of different foods using a variety of different feeding strategies. The first bone-crunching specialists evolved about 10 million years ago. The ancestry of the Aardwolf diverged from the other hyenas prior to that point. It is the smallest surviving member of the family, being only 6-12 kg in weight, and eats mainly termites and a few other kinds of insects … only rarely small mammals.

The hyenas became very successful since they first evolved. They occurred not only in Africa but also in Europe and Asia up to Indonesia in the past … and some even entered North America. These were the long-legged fast-running hyenas of the genus Chasmaporthetes, which might have lived in the style of African Hunting Dogs. The bone-crunching hyenas meanwhile evolved into species some of which became as large as bears. Hyena fossils were even found in caves in Britain and Europe. These 'cave hyenas' were sometimes considered a separate species but are now simply considered to be Spotted Hyenas, although a particularly robust form. Spotted and striped hyenas similar to the modern forms can already be recognized as fossils of 7 million years ago. A vast amount of fossilized hyena dung has been found, indicating that they've been extremely important components of the African ecology for millions of years. Like most large mammals, they've suffered a great reduction in diversity and numbers subsequent to the arrival of humans. The remaining four species are still hanging on. The Spotted Hyena is well represented in Africa's large game reserves, while the Brown and Striped Hyenas can survive in desert regions sparsely populated by people. The Aardwolf is sometimes persecuted by people believing it would catch poultry or small livestock, but this should stop as people are better informed of its innocuousness.

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