Due to its nocturnal habits and retiring manner, the brown hyena often escapes attention, but this shaggy-haired scavenger deserves to be better known. By Gaynor Siljeur

Desert dweller

If you’re dreaming of seeing a brownie, start planning a trip to the arid parks. Although brown hyenas occur in a range of habitats, they are most frequently seen in desert areas such as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. But these elusive animals may also turn up in areas where they’re not expected. Some tagged individuals have been recorded covering distances as great as 600km. Recently Wild traveller Chris Hoffman had a dream sighting of two brown hyenas in Addo Elephant National Park.

Picture by Chris Hoffman

Built to roam

Hyenas are known for many things, but good posture isn’t one of them – both brown and spotted hyenas are instantly recognised by their sloping back. According to field guide Trevor Carnaby, the sloping back is likely an adaptation to a nomadic lifestyle. When front and hind legs are the same length, there is more gravitational pressure and greater fatigue as a result. Longer front legs offset the pressure and enable the animal to walk for longer; in the case of brown hyenas, up to 50km a night.

Strong front legs are designed to carry the hyena’s muscular shoulders, neck, head and jaws. Like their spotted cousins, brown hyenas have immensely powerful jaws, capable of crushing an ostrich egg and animal bones.

Because brownies have to travel even further in their arid environments to find food and water, their back slopes more than the spotted hyena’s and the hind legs are smaller too.

Did you know? Brown hyenas occur in a wide area, but are rare over most of their range. In the southern Kalahari, they are estimated to number two animals per 100km2.

Picture by Jean Paul Acquaviva

Furtive feeders

Brown hyenas are more solitary than their spotted counterparts. They do their best to avoid confrontation, especially with lions. Instead they will take what is left of a kill once it has been abandoned. A finely developed sense of smell enables the brown hyena to pick up the scent of carrion from more than 1.5km downwind.
In addition to scavenging animal remains, they favour eggs, small animals and insects. In extremely barren areas, brownies eat fruit such as tsamma melons, from which they obtain nutrients and water.

Picture by Chris Hoffman

Long, shaggy hair

The brown hyena’s chocolate or tawny coat is made up of long, shaggy hair – much longer than that of the spotted hyena. The hair provides useful insulation from the extreme temperatures they have to deal with in the desert. But that’s not all, their fur is also used as a scare tactic when confronted by enemies. When in the presence of bigger predator, a brown hyena will raise its hair to make its body seem larger than it actually is.

Picture by Jean Paul Acquaviva

Sources:
SMITHERS’ MAMMALS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA: A FIELD GUIDE.2012. STRUIK NATURE.
THE MAMMAL GUIDE OF SOUTHERN AFRICA. 2009. BRIZA PUBLICATIONS.
BEAT ABOUT THE BUSH: MAMMALS AND BIRDS. 2013. JACANDA MEDIA.