Spotted hyena

The spotted hyaena – efficient and most successful hunters in the Serengeti

Spotted hyena have an undeserved reputation of being a scavenger. The truth is that they are highly skilled and efficient hunters of ungulates like zebras and wildebeests 1-3 and even hunt on new born elephant calfs 4.


“But Zazu, you told me they’re nothing but slobbering mangy stupid poachers.” – says Simba in the Lion King. He underestimates Shenzi and her clan, because spotted hyenas appear a bit unshaped and clumpsy, like ugly beasts.

Simba - The Lion King

One of the interesting aspects about the spotted hyena is  that they are the most successful among the large mammalian predators in the Serengeti. In general the lions are taking literally the “lion share” of the prey population.

However, in the Serengeti the most abundant prey of lions and hyenas, the wildebeest and the grant’s zebra, are migrating throughout the year. That means that 90% of their food is some seasons miles away from their den.

The most obvious would be for the predators to follow their prey.

In case of large carnivores they are limited by their offspring. Cubs of hyenas and lions are dependent on their mothers and during their first months spend time in their dens. Thus, both species have to cope with the situation of migratory prey: the predators have to cope with a high fluctuation of prey availability- wildebeest and zebras are making almost 90% of the mid-sized ungulates in the Serengeti and are both migratory. Once the prey moved from the territory, lions have to rely on alternative prey species. The consequence is that lions not reaching the required 4-5 Kg of prey per adult lion during seasons when prey is out of their hunting territory5.

Hyenas are masters in exploiting chaos

Lions and hyenas fighting for a kill – both are vicious enemies focusing
on the same prey wildebeests and zebras


The spotted hyenas, though, are organized differently then lions. Lions live in packs usually led by two males. Spotted hyenas live in clans of more than 100 individuals. They can also travel long distances for getting food. On top, they are much more efficient in eating on carrion, especially on bones. Their conic shape teeth with powerful jaws can crack bones and beside they can digest the complete bone not only the marrow. Thus, spotted hyenas have a wider spectrum of food, but most important, their clan dens are located in the centre of the migratory routes. In this way, spotted hyenas can cope much better with the migration because they can move into the areas were the prey currently resides6,7. As a consequence the spotted hyena is the dominating member of the large carnivore guild in the Serengeti.


Kruger National Park – where lions are the kings

In other regions, such as the Kruger National Park, prey is only slightly migratory. The availability of prey is thus less fluctuative and more stable. Lions can cope here excellently and are in fact the dominant among the large carnivoran predators8-10.


1              Kruuk, H. The Spotted Hyena.  (The University of Chicago Press, 1972).

2              Trinkel, M., Fleischmann, P. H., Steindorfer, A. F. & Kastberger, G. Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) follow migratory prey. Seasonal expansion of a clan territory in Etosha, Namibia. Journal of Zoology 264, 125-133, doi:10.1017/s0952836904005588 (2004).

3              Cooper, S. M. The hunting behaviour of spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta) in a region containing both sedentary and migratory populations of herbivores. African Journal of Ecology 28, 131-141 (1990).

4              Salnicki, J., Teichmann, M., Wilson, V. J. & Murindagomo, F. Spotted hyaenas Crocuta crocuta prey on new-born elephant calves in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Koedoe 44, 79-83 (2001).

5              Hanby, J. P., Bygott, J. D. & Packer, C. in Serengeti II – Dynamics, Management, and Conservation of an Ecosystem   (eds A. R. E. Sinclair & Peter Arcese)  315-331 (The University of Chicago Press, 1995).

6              Hofer, H. & East, M., L. in Serengeti II – Dynamics, Management, and Conservation of an Ecosystem   (eds A. R. E. Sinclair & Peter Arcese)  332-363 (The University of Chicago Press, 1995).

7              Hofer, H. & East, M. L. The commuting system of Serengeti spotted hyaenas: How a predator copes with migratory prey: I. Social organization. Animal Behaviour 46, 547-557, doi:10.1006/anbe.1993.1222 (1993).

8              Volmer, R. & Hertler, C. The effect of competition on shared food resources in carnivore guilds. Quaternary International 413, 32-43 (2016).

9              Mills, M. G. L. & Biggs, H. C. Prey apportionment and related ecological relationships between large carnivores in Kruger National Park. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 65, 253-268 (1993).

10           Owen-Smith, N. & Mills, M. G. L. Predator-prey size relationships in an African large-mammal food web. Journal of Animal Ecology 77, 173-183 (2008).