Spotted Hyena

Latin Name
Crocuta crocuta




Spotted hyenas are powerfully built predators. They have massive necks and large heads topped by rounded ears, unlike the related but smaller striped hyena and brown hyena. Their jaws are probably the strongest in relation to size of any mammal. Their long front legs give their backs a downward slope. They have a coarse, sandy, yellowish or gray coat with black or dark brown spots over most of the body. Spotted hyenas measure 3–5 feet from head to tail and weigh 100–150 pounds. Females are larger than males.



Spotted hyenas range throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but their population varies widely across this area. The highest densities exist in Tanzania, where the species is the most numerous large predator in the Serengeti.


Spotted hyenas are considered a lower-risk species but are dependent on conservation programs to maintain healthy populations. Lincoln Park Zoo scientists are helping to conserve the species through the zoo-managed Serengeti Health Initiative, a research program dedicated to studying the Serengeti ecosystem and conserving its wildlife. Lincoln Park Zoo participates in the Spotted Hyena Species Survival Plan®, a shared conservation effort by zoos throughout the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.


Spotted hyenas resides in savanna, semi-deserts, open woodland and mountainous forests.


Spotted hyenas are inaccurately characterized as scavengers. In fact, they are one of Africa’s top predators. They prey on a wide variety of animals, from large hoofed animals such as gazelles, zebras and wildebeest to smaller mammals. Their large numbers lead to fierce competition for food. While most of their diet comes from hunting prey, they will also scavenge. Spotted hyenas and lions compete for food and often scavenge each other’s kills. Hyenas typically hunt in small groups of 2 to 5 individuals, using larger groups to hunt zebra. They have tremendous endurance as well as keen senses of sight, hearing and smell for detecting prey and carrion over great distances.

Life History

Spotted hyenas form social groups called clans. Larger clans of up to 80 members generally occur in territory with large prey concentrations. Members forage alone or in small groups, gathering only at kills, when defending territory and at communal dens. Clans have complex matriarchal hierarchies, and females are dominant over males. Spotted hyenas are polygynous (having more than one female as a mate at one time) and mate throughout the year. The gestation period is 4 months. Females usually bear twins and can produce a litter every 11 to 21 months. Mothers care exclusively for young, with no communal or male participation.

is highly polygynous and mating is aseasonal. Although all females produce litters, alpha females

Special Adaptations

Females’ genitalia bears a highly unusual resemblance to that of males—leading to the myth that they are hermaphrodites. Females have an enlarged, penis-like clitoris through which they urinate, mate and give birth. In place of a vagina, they have a scrotum-like pouch. During birth, the clitoris ruptures to allow young to pass through. The resulting wound takes weeks to heal and is one way to identify a mature female’s gender. This bizarre adaptation may cause females to tolerate the presence of smaller males, who aren’t particularly needed for protection or hunting. Since this social system favors aggression, females produce and pass along high quantities of male hormones and extremely high-energy–content milk to offspring. Cubs are born with their eyes open and well-developed teeth, and begin fighting within minutes after birth. Siblings of the same sex often fight until one is killed—enabling the survivor to receive more food and mature faster.

Bonus Content

Helping Hyenas in the Serengeti
In his weekly post, President and CEO Kevin Bell shares how the zoo’s Serengeti Health Initiative has benefitted park predator species such as spotted hyenas.

Spotted Hyenas Arrive at the Zoo
We spotlight one of the zoo’s two male spotted hyenas in our Photo of the Week series. The two males—Kai, 3, and Thika, 14—moved into an exhibit at the McCormick Bear Habitat in November, 2012.


ARKive Media

ARKive image - Spotted hyaena cubARKive video - Spotted hyaena - overviewARKive image - Spotted hyaena cubs resting

ARKive is creating the ultimate multimedia guide to the world's endangered species.
Visit ARKive for thousands more films, photos and fact-files!

Lincoln Park Zoo Exhibit