There are some people, I was reminded this morning as she danced around the dustbin waving a bin-liner in homage to Isadora Duncan, who might accuse Mrs23thorns of being a little eccentric.
What nonsense! The woman is as sane and as rational as the day is long! But she does, I thought as she pretended to strangle herself with the bin-liner, have just one peculiarity. She has a favourite animal.
This is not, in and of itself, unusual. What is unusual is her choice. In a land crawling with iconic beasts; the majestic lion, the awe-inspiring elephant, the heraldic Sable Antelope, Mrs 23thorns has chosen this.
That’s right. The dustbin dancer’s favourite beast is that craven, cowardly, skulking scavenger, the spotted hyena.
I was a little surprised to note on Sunday that people were keen on more Lowveld posts; I had always seen them as a little self-indulgent. But it was a happy discovery. I like writing them. And since there is little time left, I thought I’d throw a couple in this week. So today I am currying favour with the delectable and perfectly rational Mrs 23 by writing about her beloved spotted hyenas.
Hyenas are weird. And spotted hyenas are very weird indeed. Hyenas aren’t dogs. They are more closely related to cats and mongooses. And have nothing in common with either.
There are a couple of other hyenas to get out of the way before getting to Mrs 23’s favourites, but in order to keep your appetite whetted, I will share with you that fact that the hyena pictured above is a female. You can tell by the size of her penis.
Evolution is a surprisingly tricky concept to get your head around, because we tend to see it as a sort of upward trajectory in which creatures are constantly approaching our version of perfection. It’s not. It’s about finding niches and thriving, and sometimes that involves going backwards, at least to our way of thinking.
The classic picture is of the fish-like creature emerging from the primordial ocean, growing legs, and taking over the land, but it’s easy to forget that creatures like whales and dolphins took a look around, decided “bugger this” and crawled back into the sea, threw away their legs, and set about trying to become fish again.
The Aardwolf is doing the same thing. It is a type of hyenid. There used to be two types of hyenid; the heavy-set bone-crushers that remain today, and a more dog like variety. The Aardwolf is the last of the latter group. But it has decided not to be a hyenid at all. It has decided to be an anteater.
The Aardwolf is small, and despite its roots as a type of hyena, it hardly eats any meat at all. It eats termites. Millions of termites. It laps up about 200 000 of them a night with its long, sticky tongue. It still has hyena-like teeth, although they are much reduced in size, and they tend to fall out.
The Aardwolf is rather curiously defenceless. It’s not much of a fighter and it can’t run very fast. Instead, it relies almost completely on bluffing. It has a long mane that usually lies flat along its back. When threatened, it erects this, seeming to double in size. I’ve always been curious about this tactic. If I was hungrily prowling the undergrowth and came across a potential meal which proceeded to double in size before my eyes, I can only imagine feeling a little pleased.
Maybe that’s why the Aardwolf has a backup plan. It can emit a foul odour from its anal glands. But the master of smells is the Brown Hyena.
I’m not really sure if Brown Hyenas belong in this post, because I’m not really sure if they belong in the Lowveld. They appear on all of the species lists, and the experts all say they are there, but I’ve never spoken to anyone who’s actually seen one. But who am I to argue with the experts?
Brown Hyenas are fascinating creatures. They are the classic scavengers of popular imagination; they do hardly any of their own hunting (they try, but they suck at it). They tend to live in drier places, and are at their best in deserts. And that’s where the whole “master of smells” thing comes in.
Deserts are not known for being filled with the sort of food that the larger carnivores like to eat. Brown Hyenas live in family groups or small clans, but they go out foraging alone. In this, they are helped along by a phenomenal sense of smell. Things that die in the desert tend to lie around for a while (they aren’t immediately snapped up by lions, spotted hyenas, vultures, honey badgers and carnivorous snails), and they can get a little ripe. The Brown hyenas can smell them from miles away.
But that’s just the big dead things. Brown Hyenas survive mostly on small dead things. To find enough food, they have to cover huge areas. But they don’t do so at random. If they happened to follow a path recently covered by another member of the clan, all the dead things would be gone. The Brown Hyenas have a solution. They paste.
All Hyenas paste. Pasting is done by leaving a secretion from a specialised anal gland on a stem of grass along the path. Usually, it’s a territorial signal. It’s there to tell other Hyenas from neighbouring clans to bugger off.
But the Brown Hyena goes one step further. It leaves two secretions. One is a dark brown smear that lasts for ages. It’s the territorial marker. It’s the other one that’s more interesting. It’s a blob of white paste called hyena butter. As it ages, it dries out and turns brown, and it dissipates. It’s a timer. Another hyena from the same clan can tell instantly who used the path before, and more importantly, how long ago they used it. There’s no point in trudging for miles along a path that has been stripped of dead things by uncle Bob the day before.
To live in such marginal places, Brown Hyenas have to work together. They begrudgingly suckle each other’s young, and bring food back to the communal den. Unlike their cousins.
And so we come to the main attraction. I don’t even know where to begin, really, because everything about Spotted Hyenas is either fascinating or downright weird. I suppose, since it’s already out there, we can begin with that penis.
Hyenas are different from almost all other mammals, and certainly the social ones, in that their society is completely dominated by the females. All males, even the biggest and most aggressive ones, are subordinate to all females, even the cubs. This is not because Hyena society is soft and gentle and nurturing. It’s because female Spotted Hyenas are from hell.
They dominate the males because they have become more male than them. They even have bigger penises. For real. While they are still in the womb, female cubs are flooded with androgen. The labia fuse together to form a fake scrotum, and the clitoris grows into a pseudo-penis.
This makes life a little complicated, because the female has to urinate, mate, and give birth through a split down the bottom of the pseudo-penis.
That’s not the only weird thing that happens in the womb. Hyenas come out fighting. They are one of the biggest babies in terms of percentage of adult body weight in the animal kingdom, and that’s not all. They are born with teeth, and with their eyes open. And immediately set about killing each other. About a quarter of them die like this in their first month.
Hyenas are, in other words, born badasses. Which makes you wonder about that whole craven scavenger story. Here is a picture of some craven, cowardly, skulking scavengers at a kill;
There are also some hyenas in that picture. Hyenas are hunters. They go after their own prey. Big prey. They avoid buffalos and giraffes, but apart from that, they hunt the same things that lions do. Like most other predators, they are, of course, happy to scavenge when the opportunity arises. They watch vultures to see where they are landing, and listen out for lions at kills.
But lions do the same thing with hyenas. More often than not, when you come upon lions feeding at a kill, surrounded by waiting hyenas, it is the lions that have driven the hyenas off their kill. Lions are bigger and stronger, and if the hyenas don’t have the numbers, they have to back down. No matter what the numbers are, if there are adult male lions around, the hyenas step back. Food is not worth dying for.
The hyenas don’t take this situation lying down. They’ve worked out the best way to keep their food away from lions. By eating it.
I once watched a leopard stalk a herd of impala. It was excruciating. He crouched low to the ground, every muscle coiled like a spring. He would slowly and carefully move one foot forward, placing it down with all the care of a person building a house of cards. Sometimes he wouldn’t like the spot, and would pull the paw back and start again. Then it was time for the next paw. It took him about twenty minutes to move five metres. And then he blew it.
Hyenas don’t have the time for those sorts of shenanigans. They simply go running in. They tend to chase the herd of their chosen prey around a little, picking out a likely target. And then the chase begins in earnest. They go quite fast, about 60km/h, but their trick is that they go on forever. Big cats give up after a few hundred metres. Hyenas go for over 5km.
And when they catch up to their prey, things get nasty. Because the hyenas unveil their lion-beating trick. They start eating. Quickly. You may have noticed that I mentioned nothing about the prey dying. That’s because the hyenas don’t wait around for that. It’s actually how they kill them. They eat them to death.
They are eating champions. It’s how they compete with each other, as well as the lions. There isn’t much fighting at a hyena kill. They all just focus on eating as much as they can, as fast as they can. And they can. A hyena can put away over 14kg at a sitting. That’s like eating a three-year old. With their shoes on.
That’s what happens during the good times. Hyenas are pretty well set up for the lean times, too. They can eat anything. Lots of animals crack open bones to get at the marrow inside. Hyenas don’t mess around like that. They simply eat the bones. They have a bite that is stronger than a grizzly bear’s. Only the biggest giraffe and elephant bones are beyond them.
Hyenas aren’t just tough. They’re smart, too. They have to be. A clan can be over 40 strong. Coping with social structures that big takes some smarts. Primate level smarts. In some co-operative problem solving tests, hyenas prove to be smarter than chimps.
Social animals need to communicate. Hyenas do the whole body language thing, tucking their tails away when they’re unnerved and putting them up when their blood is up, and snarling and grimacing. They walk forwards on their knees to show submission, and greet each other by licking each other’s genitals (they didn’t grow those pseudo-penises for nothing). But it is their voices that set them apart. Spotted Hyenas talk.
Loudly. It’s hard to pin down any particular sound as being evocative of a place as wild as the African bush, but if you are sitting quietly out in the dark, there is nothing quite like the whoop of a hyena to remind you of where you are. If it’s far away, it warms your heart and fills you with a sense of well-being. If it’s really close, it makes your blood run cold, and reminds you you are nothing but a primate that spent millions of years on the sharp end of the food chain in places just like the one you are in now.
But the whoop is just one of the hyena’s calls. They do a fast whoop to stir themselves up for battle. They cackle like Victorian madmen in Bedlam when being chased, by lions or each other, and squeal when they get caught. They “oo”, they grunt, they growl, they yelp. They are not, in other words, quiet.
If you really want to know what hyenas are all about, you need to look at the competition. Hyenas occupy the same ecological niche as lions. They eat the same things and live in the same places. And they are at war. A big male lion can weigh over 200kg. A big female hyena weighs about 60kg. It just doesn’t look like a fair fight. But hyenas have a secret weapon. Numbers. Hyena clans are much bigger than lion prides, and when the numbers fall in their favour, they will take them on. And win. They can drive prides of lions off kills and send them scrambling up trees like frightened kittens. As long as there aren’t any male lions around. This is not something to be undertaken lightly. It takes balls. Luckily even the female hyenas have those.
So that’s all the booky stuff. Then there are my hyenas. When I was much younger, and first started going down to the bush, people (including us people) used to throw our chop bones and leftovers out into the bush as we were eating. There were hyenas that used to do the rounds of the houses, looking for scraps, and they became, if not tame, habituated to people. We weren’t afraid of them and they weren’t afraid of us.
Every now and then, as we sat chatting raucously late into the night, we would hear a noise on the stoep right behind us. We would turn to see a hyena standing just a few steps behind us. We were never in any real danger; as I said, hyenas are smart, and aren’t about to take on Africa’s alpha predator alone, but there is something rather bracing about finding a creature willing to take on lions has been standing two paces behind your shoulder.
It’s not like that these days. Nobody throws down food anymore. You could see some cool things, but it’s not wise to have dangerous wild animals getting too familiar. And besides, we now have two hyena-meal-sized attachments that we’re rather fond of. But they still pop in every now and then, padding through the moonlight, breath clouding out in front of them, to remind us that they are all still there.
And we still hear them, splitting the night with their eerie whoops, and letting us know that there are still parts of the world where things are as they should be.