Africa, south of the Sahara desert


Savanna, semi-desert, scrubland, swamp, open woodland, and montane regions

Dogs or cats or…?

So, you think you know all about spotted hyenas—the ones known to "laugh"? They're in lots of cartoons and movies, and they're usually in the role of giggly villains. But is that a fair description?

It may look like a dog, but the spotted hyena is more closely related to cats, civets, and genets. Also called the laughing hyena, the spotted hyena is a strong, capable hunter. It is the largest member of the hyena family (other members are the striped hyena, brown hyena, and aardwolf). Female spotted hyenas are a bit larger than the males, but otherwise they look exactly the same.

One of a kind

The spotted hyena may look unusual, at first sight. It has a large head with a long, thick, muscular neck and powerful jaws that give the hyena the strongest bite of any mammal. Its front legs are longer than its back legs, giving the animal a profile somewhat like that of a wildebeest or bison. The spotted hyena's paws have four toes with non-retractable claws. The short, coarse fur has a yellow or gray tint covered in spots, which differ among individuals. Its ears are more rounded than that of the other hyenas. A short mane of hair along its back stands upright. Its only true predators are lions and humans.

What a mouthful! Hyenas can eat one-third of their body weight at one meal.
Spotted hyenas can digest things that most other animals cannot, like skin and bone. Special acids in their stomach break down these rare delicacies.
Hyena fossils have been found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. But for the last 8,000 years, the spotted hyena has lived only in Africa.
Spotted hyenas can trot at 6 miles (10 kilometers) per hour without getting tired for long distances. They can run up to 30 miles (50 kilometers) per hour and are good swimmers.
The spotted hyena’s rounded ears help distinguish it from the striped and brown hyena.
The genus name for the spotted hyena, “Crocuta,” comes from a Latin word meaning an unknown wild animal of Ethiopia.
Although their behavior and appearance are like dogs, hyenas are more closely related to cats.
A spotted hyena mother’s milk has the highest protein content of any land carnivore.

The impression that many people have of spotted hyenas can often change with a visit to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our first spotted hyenas came from a private collector in 1934.

By the 1960s, we had hyenas reproducing at regular intervals. In 1962, a female gave birth to three young, a rare occurrence, as female hyenas have just two nipples. One of the babies went to our Zoo nursery—our first attempt at hand-rearing a spotted hyena. Named Dandy, the little one grew healthy and strong.

Today, Zoo guests can see Zephyr and Turbo, spotted hyena siblings, along Center Street. They do their part to help show visitors what charismatic animals hyenas are—something we already knew. The "boys" greet their keepers with whoops and giggles, awaiting a training session and a treat of baby food or a lump of lard. Keepers use a back scratcher to offer a quick back scratch through the mesh, which has the hyenas yawning with contentment. Smart and playful, they like to grab each other’s tail and spin in circles, giggling.

When visitors see hyenas in person, they are often surprised to discover what attractive, amazing predators they are. Now that’s the reputation we want to promote!

While spotted hyenas are not threatened at the moment, things could change. Drought can have drastic effects on the food chain, from herbivores to carnivores. Conflict between humans and hyenas is also common whenever the two are competing for resources. Deforestation brings people and hyenas into closer quarters, and hyenas that prey on livestock are not likely to be treated like good neighbors. Spotted hyenas are still shot, poisoned, and trapped, even in protected areas of their range. Some are even shot as “fun” target practice. Education is needed to dispel the poor public perceptions of this useful carnivore.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.