Brown hyena

Brown hyena – the wolf of the beach

 Brown hyenas are restricted to Southern Africa and true scavengers. They rarely hunt and less than 5% of their diet comprised self-hunted ungulates and small vertebrates. They are adapted also to dry areas such the Kalahari and can stay days without water. However, they also like to “drink” melons eating them to intake water1.

Brown hyenas also inhabit the beaches where they prey on cape fur seals, especially the cubs and young individuals while their mother is foraging 2. Since brown hyenas also look a bit like wolves, they are called “beach wolf” (Strandwolf) in German language.





striped hyena

Stealing vs. Cleaning — Kleptoparsitism and Scavenging

Brown hyenas are mainly scavengers and feed on carrion of medium- and large sized ungulates. Scavenging means the consumption of a carcass that is not killed by the consuming individual or another individual of the pack or clan the individual belongs to AND was abondened by the original predator(s). Scavenging is different from kleptoparasitism. In kleptoparasitism also a carcass that is not killed by the individual or comunity and was brought down by another predator. However, the difference here is that the kleptoparasites steal aggressivly the prey of other predators. The difference is that the carcass is abondened unvoluntarily and because of the kleptoparasite.

Kleptoparasitism is thus practiced by large predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, because they are physically stronger than other predators and/or outnumber them. The stolen prey is still “fresh”. In case of scavenging the carcass is often already in a decomposing state, or at least it is the true left-overs of the real predators. These are mainly bones, skin and other tissues that are hard to digest. Scavengers such as brown hyenas or jackals are fitting into this niche of scavenging. Hyenas can digest bones not only the marrow but every part and they can also digest toxines typical for decomposition.






As most carnivores, brown hyenas also hunt, but rarely. Only 4.7% of the hunting attempts in the Kalahari were successful1. Large or medium sized adult ungulates have never been hunted successfully in the Kalahari1. Mostly, smaller vertebrates such as birds, rodents, and springhares, can be successfully overcome by brown hyenas1.


Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis).

M. Mills reported, that brown hyenas occassionally hunt springbok lambs in the Kalahari desert1.

More than 2.6 Million years ago…the first brown hyenas in Africa

Parahyaena brunnea fossils are frequently found in Plio-Pleistocene aged caves and sururface finds in caves such as Elandsfontain, Kromdraai A, Sterkfontein 4 and Swartkrans 1,23,4. Sterkfontain Member 4 is dated to 2.6 and 2.0 Ma5-8 and one of the oldest records of brown hyena fossils9.  A latrine dated to 195,000 to 257,000 years in Galdysvale, southern Africa, is the oldest brown hyena latrine preserved in an entrance of a cave3.

Today, brown hyenas are restricted to the South-African region, but during Pleistocene they might have occurred also in eastern and/or Northern Africa4, such as from Omo Shungura Formation in Ethiopia10 and Kenya11.

The brown hyaena might have evolved from its Pliocene ancestor Parahyaena howelli. This hyaenid has the robust premolars for bone cracking but weaker developed as in Pliocrocuta, Pachycrocuta and Crocuta. Because of its smaller size in general, it also differs from the striped hyena12.





brown hyena

Brown hyenas live in clans up 10 individuals but mostly forage on their own.


1              Mills, G. & Hofer, H.     (IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 1998).

2              Werdelin, L. & Solounias, N. The Hyaenidae: taxonomy, systematics and evolution.,  (Universitetsforlaget, 1991).

3              Howell, F. & Petter, G. Carnivora from Omo group formations, southern Ethiopia. Earliest Man – Environments in the Lake Rudolf Basin. University of Chicago                     Press, Chicago, 314-331 (1976).

4              Turner, A. The evolution of the guild of larger terrestrial carnivores during the Plio-Pleistocene in Africa. Geobios 23, 349-368 (1990).

5              Leakey, L. S. B. Olduvai Gorge 1951-61.  (Cambridge University, 1967).

6              Petter, G. Carnivores pléistocenes du ravin d’Olduvai (Tanzanie). Earliest Man – Fossil vertebrates of Africa 3, 43-100 (1973).

7              Turner, A. Relative scavenging opportunities for East and South African plio-Pleistocene hominids. Journal of Archaeological Science 15, 327-341 (1988).

8              Turner, A. Miscellaneous carnivore remains from Plio-Pleistocene deposits in the Sterkfontein valley (Mammalia: Carnivora). Annals of the Transvaal                               Museum 34, 203-226 (1986).

9              Thenius, E. Über das Vorkommen von Streifenhyänen (Carnivora, Mammalia) im Pleistozän Niederösterreichs. Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums in                      Wien, 263-268 (1964).

10           Bicho, N. & Cardoso, J. L. Paleolithic occupations and lithic assemblages from Furninha Cave, Peniche (Portugal). Zephyrus. Revista de Prehistoria y                                    Arqueología, 17-38 (2010).

11           Busk, G. & Falconer, H. On the fossil contents of the Genista Cave, Gibraltar. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 21, 364-370 (1865).

12           Turner, A., Antón, M. & Werdelin, L. Taxonomy and evolutionary patterns in the fossil Hyaenidae of Europe. Geobios 41, 677-687 (2008).