Aardwolf and hyenas

Make Him a Monogamy Junkie

The Monogamy Method

Get Instant Access


Class Mammalia Order Carnivora Family Hyaenidae

Thumbnail description

Large carnivores with powerful forequarters and less well developed hindquarters, large heads, powerful jaws and robust teeth, with medium length tails and four toes on each limb; the aardwolf is a diminutive form with poorly developed teeth and five toes on the forefeet; well developed anal pouches are present in all species


Shoulder height 18-30 in (45-75 cm); head and body length 38-52 in (95-130 cm); 20-190 lb (9-85 kg)

Number of genera, species

3 genera; 4 species


From woodland savanna to desert Conservation status

Lower Risk/Near Threatened: 2 species; Lower Risk/Least Concern: 1 species


Africa, except for the rainforests, and southern Asia as far as the Bay of Bengal


Africa, except for the rainforests, and southern Asia as far as the Bay of Bengal

Evolution and systematics

Hyenas are the smallest carnivore family today, and probably arose from civets Progenetta. They were the dominant carnivores in the Middle and Upper Miocene of Eurasia. The majority of these forms were generalized, dog-like carnivores rather than the hunter-scavenger and bone-crushing species of today. However, the largest hyena to ever live, Pachycro-cuta, was a 440 lb (200 kg) mega-scavenger capable of splintering the marrow bones of an elephant. The splits between the lineages leading to the extant forms are old, stretching back to the late Miocene more than nine million years ago. Palaeontological and molecular studies have shown that the aardwolf (Proteles cristatus) diverged from other hyenas some 15-32 million years ago (mya). The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) split from the brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) and striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) 10 mya, and the brown and the striped, which are each other's closest relatives, split six mya. In the absence of clear-cut data regarding rank among hyenas and because the molecular data unite striped and brown hyenas as sister taxa relative to Crocuta and Proteles, the two are placed in the genus Hyaena. However, recognizing that the split between brown and striped is relatively old, the two have been placed in different subgenera Hyaena (Parahyaena) and Hyaena (Hyaena) respectively.

Two subspecies of the aardwolf are recognized because of its disjunct distribution, P. c. cristatus in southern Africa and P. c. septentrionalis in eastern and North Africa. On the basis

Eastern Aardwolf
Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) social greeting behavior. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Joe McDonald. Reproduced by permission.)
Aardwolf Proteles Cristatus
An aardwolf (Proteles cristatus) in Kenya. (Photo by Animals Animals ©A. Root, OSF. Reproduced by permission.)
Hyaena Brunnea
A brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) eating eggs at night. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Hamman/Heldring. Reproduced by permission.)

of skull size, the five currently recognized striped hyena subspecies probably form two larger groups, a northeast Africa-Arabian group comprising H. h. dubbah and H. h. sultana, and a northwest African-Asian group composed of H. h. barbara, H. h. syriaca, and H. h. hyaena. No subspecies of the spotted hyena and brown hyena are recognized.

Physical characteristics

The three large species are dog-like (but they are not closely related to dogs), weighing between 57-187 lb (26-85 kg), with powerful forequarters, large necks and heads and less well developed hind quarters, giving the appearance of a sloping back. In contrast the aardwolf is diminutive, weighing about 24 lb (11 kg). The tail in all is quite short but bushy. The coat of the spotted hyena is short but in the other species it is long and shaggy with an erectile main. There are four toes on each foot, except in the forefeet of the aardwolf which have five. Front feet are far larger than hind feet giving a distinctive track. The premolars are robust and conical, except in the aardwolf where they are reduced to small pegs. The penis is boneless. In all species a large anal pouch secretes scent onto grass stalks in a unique behavior known as pasting.

Aardwolf Penis

A spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) den on the Serengeti Plains, Tanzania. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Breck P. Kent. Reproduced by permission.)

Hyenas PenisBrown Hyena

An alert brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) in Kalahari Gemsbok Park, South Africa. (Photo by Animals Animals ©J & B Photographers. Reproduced by permission.)

Spotted Hyena Tracks

A hyena "laughing". (Photo by Pater Davey. Bruce Coleman, Inc. Re- The aardwolf (Proteles cristatus) is usually seen in Africa. (Photo by © produced by permission.) Terry Whittaker/Corbis. Reproduced by pemission.)

Parahyaena Brunnea
A brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) drinking from stream in the Kalahari, South Africa. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Betty K. Bruce. Reproduced by permission.)


Mainly a sub-Saharan Africa family, with no species being found in the rainforests of the Congo and only the striped hyena occurring in North Africa, continuing through into southern Asia as far as India.

Aardwolf Proteles Cristatus
Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus) cubs in South Africa. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Helen Thompson. Reproduced by permission.


Wide habitat tolerance from heavily wooded savannas to desert.


For such a small family, the Hyaenidae show great variability in behavior and social organization, varying from the highly social, clan-living spotted hyena, the monogamous aardwolf, and the blatantly solitary but secretly social brown hyena.

Congolese Spotted Lion
A spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) feeding on a young elephant killed earlier by a lion. (Photo by Harald Schütz. Reproduced by permission.)

Feeding ecology and diet

The spotted hyena is a hunter-scavenger and the brown and striped hyenas are predominantly scavengers. The ability of all three to break open bones and extract marrow, and also to digest bone, gives them access to a food source unavailable to other carnivores. The aardwolf is a specialized termite eater.

Reproductive biology

Non-seasonal breeders, except for the aardwolf. Litter size is from one to four, gestation around 90 days. They keep their young in breeding dens which are usually holes in the ground or sometimes caves. Mating systems vary by species (monogamous, polygamous).

Conservation status

Aardwolves are not considered endangered in the wild. The IUCN Red List 2002 classifies spotted hyenas as Lower Risk/Conservation Dependent and the brown and striped hyenas as Lower Risk/Near Threatened.

Significance to humans

Hyenas are often misunderstood and persecuted unnecessarily. Their important role in ecosystems and intricate behavior is often not appreciated. They play a significant role in witchcraft and folklore. They sometimes attack livestock and people, especially the spotted hyena.

Brown Hyenas Caves

1. Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta); 2. Striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena); 3. Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus); 4. Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea). (Illustration by Wendy Baker)

Was this article helpful?

+1 0


  • segan
    What is the different between Hayena & aardwolf?
    4 years ago

Post a comment