1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hyena

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HYENA, a name applicable to all the representatives of the mammalian family Hyaenidae, a group of Carnivora (q.v.) allied to the civets. From all other large Carnivora except the African hunting-dog, hyenas are distinguished by having only four toes on each foot, and are further characterized by the length of the fore-legs as compared with the hind pair, the non-retractile claws, and the enormous strength of the jaws and teeth, which enables them to break the hardest bones and to retain what they have seized with unrelaxing grip.

Fig. 1.—The Striped Hyena (Hyaena striata).

The striped hyena (Hyaena striata) is the most widely distributed species, being found throughout India, Persia, Asia Minor, and North and East Africa, the East African form constituting a distinct race, H. striata schillingsi; while there are also several distinct Asiatic races. The species resembles a wolf in size, and is greyish-brown In colour, marked with indistinct longitudinal stripes of a darker hue, while the legs are transversely striped. The hairs on the body are long, especially on the ridge of the neck and back, where they form a distinct mane, which is continued along the tail. Nocturnal in habits, it prefers by day the gloom of caves and ruins, or of the burrows which it occasionally forms, and issues forth at sunset, when it commences its unearthly howling. When the animal is excited, the howl changes into what has been compared to demoniac laughter, whence the name of "laughing-hyena." These creatures feed chiefly on carrion, and thus perform useful service by devouring remains which might otherwise pollute the air. Even human dead are not safe from their attacks, their powerful claws enabling them to gain access to newly interred bodies in cemeteries. Occasionally (writes Dr W. T. Blanford) sheep or goats, and more often dogs, are carried off, and the latter, at all events, are often taken alive to the animal's den. This species appears to be solitary in habits, and it is rare to meet with more than two together. The cowardice of this hyena is proverbial; despite its powerful teeth, it rarely attempts to defend itself. A very different animal is the spotted hyena, Hyaena (Crocuta) crocuta, which has the sectorial teeth of a more cat-like type, and is marked by dark-brown spots on a yellowish ground, while the mane is much less distinct. At the Cape it was formerly common, and occasionally committed great havoc among the cattle, while it did not hesitate to enter the Kaffir dwellings at night and carry off children sleeping by their mothers. By persistent trapping and shooting, its numbers have now been considerably reduced, with the result, however, of making it exceedingly wary, so that it is not readily caught in any trap with which it has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted. Its range extends from Abyssinia to the Cape. The Abyssinian form has been regarded as a distinct species, under the name of H. liontiewi, but this, like various more southern forms, is but regarded as a local race. The brown hyena (H. brunnea) is South African, ranging to Angola on the west and Kilimanjaro on the east. In size it resembles the striped hyena, but differs in appearance, owing to the fringe of long hair covering the neck and fore part of the back. The general hue is ashy-brown, with the hair lighter on the neck (forming a collar), chest and belly; while the legs are banded with dark brown. This species is not often seen, as it remains concealed during the day. Those frequenting the coast feed on dead fish, crabs and an occasional stranded whale, though they are also a danger to the sheep and cattle kraal. Strand-wolf is the local name at the Cape.

Fig. 2.—The Spotted Hyena (Hyaena crocuta).

Although hyenas are now confined to the warmer regions of the Old World, fossil remains show that they had a more northerly range during Tertiary times; the European cave-hyena being a form of the spotted species, known as H. crocuta spelaea. Fossil hyenas occur in the Lower Pliocene of Greece, China, India, &c.; while remains indistinguishable from those of the striped species have been found in the Upper Pliocene of England and Italy.