Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758), Pers. kaftār. The striped hyena is the only current Asian representative of the mammalian family Hyaenidae. Principal threats to hyena populations today are vehicular traffic (since they scavenge road kills at night), wanton shooting, and secondary poisoning. The hyena is a protected species in Iran.


HYENA, Hyaena hyaena (Linnaeus, 1758; Figure 1), Pers. kaftār. The striped hyena is the only current Asian representative of the mammalian family Hyaenidae. It is a medium-sized carnivore with a relatively large head and with the forequarters heavier than the hindquarters; the legs are long, with four digits on each foot. Hyenas weigh about 35-45 kg. Their pelage is long (shorter in summer than in winter), gray-white to yellowish brown on the sides, legs, and back, with black cross-stripes. Their stiff, black mane on the neck and back is erectile in anger and fear, giving the hyena a larger and more formidable aspect. There is a large black patch on the throat. The tail is about 40 cm in length, with black and gray hairs, and it is stiffened during social interactions. Males and females are similar in appearance, although the males are slightly larger on average. An anal sac containing glands that secrete a thick, pungent, fatty substance can be everted to mark objects and in social interactions. Although somewhat dog-like in appearance, studies of their evolutionary relationships identify the hyenas as closer relatives of the Felidae (cats) and Viverridae (civets) (Wayne et al., 1989; Martin, 1989).

The species is distributed across North Africa and southwestern Asia. In the Middle East it occurs throughout the Arabian peninsula, east and north through Iran, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan, and from Asia Minor through southern Central Asia. In Iran, it is widely distributed throughout the country; they are present in large numbers along the coast of the Persian Gulf, but are less common in the north of the country.

During prehistoric times (into the Upper Paleolithic) the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta (Erlexleben, 1777), now confined to Africa, was also present in the Middle East; and from about three million to half a million years ago a much larger, now extinct hyena, Pachycrocuta brevirostris (Aymard), was part of the mammal megafauna of Eurasia.

Ognev (1962), describing hyena habitat in the former Soviet Union, said that they select remote, deserted places without human habitations. Ilani (1975) and others studying hyenas in Israel and Egypt found that they have adapted well to areas of human habitation and to coexistence with people. They prefer rocky hillsides where there are caves and crevices, but forage for food over flat terrain as well. A variety of other carnivores occur in the same habitats, including foxes, wolves, jackals, caracals, and leopards. The natural history of hyenas has not been studied in Iran, and most of what is known about this animal in Asia is a result of studies carried out in Israel by Ilani (1975), Macdonald (1978), Skinner and Ilani (1979), Bouskila (1985), and Van Aarde et al. (1988). For a summary of the natural history of the hyena in the former Soviet Union, see Ognev (1931[1962]), and Rustamov and Sopyev (1994). See Harrington (1977) for comments on the hyena in Iran.

Striped hyenas are nocturnal, with two peaks of activity: in the early hours of darkness and in the dark hours before dawn. During the winter and early summer, they remain outside the lair for an extra two hours to rest and warm themselves in the morning sun, and in cloudy and rainy weather they may be active also during the day. Their lairs are naturally occurring caves, which they often enlarge by digging to suit their needs, sometimes with several chambers. Where there are no natural caves, they may take over the burrows of porcupines and badgers. Since they are bone accumulators, hyena caves are important sites for archeologists, often providing sequential records of the local faunas during periods of human habitation of a region (Ilani, 1975).

Striped hyenas are omnivorous, but their most obvious special adaptation is their ability to crack large bones in order to extract the marrow. They are best known as scavengers, feeding on the kills of larger carnivores, where these occur, or the carcasses of wild and domestic animals which die of natural causes or from being hit by vehicles on the roads. They are able to catch, kill, and eat small animals, particularly such things as tortoises, hedgehogs, and hares, and they feed opportunistically on a wide variety of insects. They have been observed to attack and kill or injure larger animals, particularly the young of domestic stock. Along the coast, they forage for intertidal invertebrates, as well as scavenging larger marine animals that wash ashore. Striped hyenas also consume quantities of vegetable matter and are fond of agricultural produce, particularly dates, melons, and other fruits. Thus, they may cause damage to crops and flocks around villages near where they live. They frequent refuse dumps and have adjusted well to living near humans, even though they are persecuted for their presumed depredations. They are widely believed to disturb shallow graves, and there is some direct evidence of this; certainly human skulls and post-cranial material have been found in their lairs. They are feared in many places, even though there is little reliable evidence that they attack people; folklore is rife with stories of hyenas killing humans, and many older studies have incorporated folk legends and travel tales uncritically.

After a three-month gestation, two to four hyena cubs are born in the spring; the cubs are altricial, that is, born without teeth, capable of only limited movement for several weeks and highly dependent upon their mother, both during the time they are nursing and during a period of provisioning; they remain in or near the den throughout this time.

The social behavior of striped hyenas has been described by Ilani (1975), supplemented by the observations of Bouskila (1985). Ilani (1975) and Rieger (1981) discussed the vocalizations of hyenas, stating that their observations indicated that they were among the quietest carnivores, despite their reputation for cackling “laughter” and bloodcurdling sounds.

Hyenas are shy in their contacts with humans, rarely even attempting to bite when they are attacked. Harrington (1977) reported that in eastern Iran it was once a common sport to hunt hyenas by hand, a group of men entering a hyena den before a crowd of spectators. After a brief struggle marked by loud shouting by the men and growls from the hyena, the hunters would emerge with the hyena trussed with ropes. Similar reports are recounted by Osborn and Helmy (1980). Hyenas have been tamed and kept as pets, even housepets (Ognev, 1931 [1962]), and the ancient Egyptians supposedly trained them for hunting (Osborn and Helmy, 1980). According to Osborn and Helmy (1980), the meat of hyenas has been eaten in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa up to the present day, and various parts and organs are used as charms and medicines. Economic losses to hyenas are relatively small, and crops and village-based livestock can be protected by adequate fencing.

The principal threats to hyena populations today are vehicular traffic (since they scavenge road kills at night), the wanton shooting of hyenas, and secondary poisoning, especially for those that feed at refuse dumps contaminated by industrial chemicals. The hyena is a protected species in Iran.



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(Steven C. Anderson)

Originally Published: December 15, 2004

Last Updated: March 27, 2012

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