The eternal enemy of the lion, and one of the most misunderstood animals in Africa, the spotted hyena gets a pretty bad rap!

Depicted as the cowardly, sly villain in The Lion King and most wildlife documentaries, the species generally doesn’t find itself near the top of most people’s favourite animals lists.

However there is so much more than meets the eye when it comes to hyenas. They are one of the most incredible and most important animals on earth.

Baby animal in the African bush
A spotted hyena cub emerges from the den | Karolina Noree (@karolinanoreewild)

What is the Spotted Hyena?

The Spotted Hyena is the most common, and largest of three hyena subspecies found throughout Africa. They are particularly prevalent in Kruger National Park, Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park.

Strictly speaking, they are neither dogs nor cats but are their own species entirely. Despite their appearance though, hyeanidae are more closely related to cats.


What does the Spotted Hyena look like?

To many, the spotted hyena is one of the ugliest animals in Africa. So much so, that the species has even landed itself in The Ugly Five.

As with most babies, hyena pups are very cute. However as they mature, they grow into their ominous appearance.

Spotted Hyena cub and mother
Hyena cub and its mother | Sophie Brown (@sophiebrownphotography)

They are characterised by often mangy-looking brown fur, relatively short torsos with low hindquarters and sloping backs. Wide, strong jaws with many large teeth also add to an overall aggressive appearance. They also have large, rounded ears with exceptional sense of hearing.

The spotted hyena’s skin is entirely covered in short, spotted fur. They lack the spinal ‘mohawk’ which is present on both other subspecies. Their fur changes colour with age, from a dark grey or black as cubs, to a dull brown as adults. The spotted pattern on their fur is unique to each individual, as are the sizes of each spot.

Spotted hyena scavenging on an elephant carcass
Spotted hyena scavenging on an elephant carcass | Stéphane Perroquet

They have a relatively short tail, around 10-14 inches, which is covered in coarse brown fur and a black tip. As with dogs, the tail is a quite way to gauge hyena communication. A tail extended over the animal’s back signals excitement, while a nervous hyena will tuck its tail between its legs.

How many teeth do spotted hyenas have?

Spotted hyenas have 34 teeth in total, with one of the strongest jaws in the entire animal kingdom. Their short, powerful canines protrude towards the front of their jaw, while sizeable carnassials sit further back. They also have a set of conical premolars that are specifically designed to crack and crush bones.

Get to know the spotted hyena
Spotted hyena showing off its impressive teeth | Andrew Macdonald (a_mac_photo)

How big is the spotted hyena?

Adult spotted hyenas are large, stocky animals. A mature individual stands at between 2 and 3 foot (70-90cm) at the shoulder, and around 5ft. (1.5m) in length, from snout to tail.

Adults have thick, muscular bodies and grow to around 100 – 160lbs (50-70kg).