Hyaenas are misunderstood.   Unless we change the way we see these amazing animals, we soon won’t see them at all.  Therefore here we debunk some common myths about members of the hyaena family.

Myth: Spotted hyaenas are hermaphrodites.

Reality: Hermaphrodites are animals that are simultaneously both male and female. Although there are many creatures in the animal kingdom that are true hermaphrodites, including some fish and many snails and worms, spotted hyaenas are definitely not among them.

Myth: It is not possible to distinguish male from female spotted hyaenas without dissecting them.

Reality: It is in fact possible to distinguish male from female spotted hyaenas when they are at least 3 months of age.

Myth: Hyaenas only eat carrion.

Reality: Brown and striped hyaenas do eat a fair amount of carrion but they supplement this with small vertebrate prey they catch themselves, as well as fruits and invertebrates.

Myth: Hyaenas often drive other large predators from their prey.

Reality: At 35 kg and 45 kg, respectively, striped and brown hyaenas are too small to engage in contests over food with other large carnivores. Although spotted hyaenas do sometimes steal food from smaller predators like cheetah and wild dogs, the more common scenario in most areas where they have been studied is for spotted hyaenas themselves to kill a large ungulate and then have lions steal it from them.

Myth: Hyaenas are closely related to dogs.

Reality: Although hyaenas look rather dog-like, they are more closely related to cats than to dogs, and their closest living relatives are mongooses and the fossa, a mongoose-like carnivore found only in Madagascar.

Myth: Hyaenas make good pets.

Reality: Although a few people in Africa and Asia find very young hyaenas in nature and raise them as pets, these animals generally appear to be extremely unhappy as “domestic companions” as adults, and must often be kept muzzled at all times so that they do not harm people or property.

Myth: Spotted hyaenas have magical powers, and witches ride on their backs.

Reality: Although African tribal folklore abounds with myths of this sort, none of the extant hyaenas have any magical powers, nor are any of their body parts effective as aphrodisiacs.

Myth: Spotted hyaenas are hermaphrodites.

This myth undoubtedly arose when people noticed that hyaenas with large pendulous udders (indicating they were obviously females) could suddenly develop impressive phallic erections such that they also looked like males. Interestingly, although a female spotted hyaena has a uterus and ovaries internally, externally she does in fact appear to have “masculinized” genitalia. That is, the female’s clitoris is enormously elongated to form a fully erectile pseudopenis through which she urinates, copulates, and gives birth.

HYAENAS ARE INTERESTING ANIMALS THAT PERFORM ESSENTIAL FUNCTIONS IN THE ECOSYSTEMS IN WHICH THEY LIVE. HYAENAS CAN OFTEN LIVE IN HARMONY WITH PEOPLE, IF WE GIVE THEM A CHANCE.