Hyenas are closer to cats than dogs, despite their dog-like appearance. Phylogenetically, they are more closely related to felines and viverrids. However, due to convergent evolution, hyenas share several behavioral and morphological similarities with canids. They are non-arboreal, cursorial hunters who catch prey with their teeth, have calloused feet with nonretractable claws for running, and exhibit similar grooming and scent-marking behaviors.
So, while they may resemble dogs, their genetic and behavioral traits align them more closely with the feline family.
Where Do Hyenas Come From?
Hyenas have their origins in the jungles of Miocene Eurasia, dating back 22 million years ago. The first hyena ancestors resembled modern African civets and gradually evolved into two distinct types: dog-like hyenas and robust bone-crushing hyenas. While the dog-like hyenas eventually became extinct due to climate change and competition from canids, the bone-crushing hyenas thrived and became the dominant scavengers in Eurasia and Africa.
The four extant hyena species today, including the striped hyena, brown hyena, spotted hyena, and aardwolf, have evolved from these ancient lineages, each with its own unique adaptations and survival strategies.
Types Of Hyenas
There are four extant species of hyenas, each belonging to its own genus. Here are the types of hyenas and some key characteristics of each:
- Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena): This species may have evolved from Hyaenictitherium namaquensis of Pliocene Africa. Fossil records of striped hyenas are common in Africa, dating back to the Villafranchian period. They are relatively late invaders to Eurasia and are not found in the Mediterranean region. Striped hyenas are known for their distinctive striped coat and are found in various habitats, including grasslands, savannas, and forests.
- Brown Hyena (Parahyaena brunnea): The brown hyena is a scavenger that primarily inhabits the deserts and semi-deserts of southern Africa. They have a shaggy brown coat and are known for their powerful jaws, which allow them to crush bones and consume every part of their prey. Brown hyenas are solitary animals and are less social compared to other hyena species.
- Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta): Spotted hyenas are the largest and most well-known species of hyenas. They have a distinct spotted coat and are highly social animals, living in large clans led by dominant females. Spotted hyenas are skilled hunters and scavengers, often competing with lions for food. They have a unique vocalization called “laughing” that can be heard over long distances.
- Aardwolf (Proteles cristata): The aardwolf is the smallest and most specialized species of hyena. Unlike other hyenas, aardwolves primarily feed on termites, using their long, sticky tongue to extract them from termite mounds. They have a yellowish-brown coat with vertical stripes and are mainly found in grasslands and savannas of eastern and southern Africa.
These four species of hyenas have distinct characteristics and play important roles in their respective ecosystems. Despite their often negative portrayal in folklore and mythology, hyenas are fascinating and vital components of African wildlife.
Hyenas Vs. Cats
Similarities & DifferencesHyenas and cats share some similarities in their physical characteristics and behaviors, but they also have distinct differences that set them apart. Here is a comparison of the similarities and differences between hyenas and cats:
- Appearance: Both hyenas and cats have a similar body shape, with a slender and agile build. They both have sharp teeth and claws for hunting and capturing prey.
- Hunting Style: Both hyenas and cats are carnivorous predators that rely on their hunting skills to catch and kill their prey. They are both skilled stalkers and ambush predators.
- Communication: Both hyenas and cats use vocalizations to communicate with each other. They produce a variety of sounds, including growls, purrs, hisses, and meows.
- Social Behavior: Some species of hyenas, like the spotted hyena, live in social groups called clans, similar to the social structure of some cat species, such as lions. Both hyenas and cats exhibit complex social behaviors within their respective groups.
- Size: Hyenas are generally larger than cats. The largest hyena species, the spotted hyena, can weigh up to 190 pounds, while the largest cat species, the tiger, can weigh up to 660 pounds.
- Species Diversity: Cats have a much greater species diversity compared to hyenas. There are over 40 species of wild cats, including lions, tigers, cheetahs, and leopards, while there are only four species of hyenas.
- Ecological Role: Hyenas play a vital role as scavengers in their ecosystems, often feeding on carrion and bones. Cats, on the other hand, are primarily active hunters and rarely scavenge for food.
- Physical Adaptations: Hyenas have powerful jaws and teeth that allow them to crush bones, while cats have sharp teeth and retractable claws that enable them to catch and kill their prey more effectively.
- Behavioral Traits: Hyenas are known for their unique vocalizations, including whoops, giggles, and growls. Cats, on the other hand, have a wide range of vocalizations, including purring, meowing, and hissing.
Hyenas Vs. Dogs
Hyenas and dogs may share some similarities in their appearance and behavior, but they also have distinct differences that set them apart. Here are the key similarities and differences between hyenas and dogs:
- Convergent Evolution: Hyenas and dogs have evolved similar traits due to convergent evolution. This means that despite being different species, they have developed similar characteristics to adapt to similar ecological niches.
- Hunting Style: Both hyenas and dogs are non-arboreal, cursorial hunters. They rely on their teeth rather than claws to catch and kill their prey.
- Food Consumption: Hyenas and dogs both eat food quickly and may store it for later consumption.
- Physical Adaptations: Both hyenas and dogs have calloused feet with large, blunt, nonretractable claws that are adapted for running and making sharp turns.
- Morphology: Hyenas have a unique appearance with a sloping back, powerful shoulders, and a large head. Dogs, on the other hand, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from small Chihuahuas to large Great Danes.
- Social Structure: Hyenas have a complex social system where they live in female-dominated clans of up to 90 individuals. Dogs, on the other hand, typically live in smaller social groups or as solitary individuals.
- Closest Relatives: While hyenas are more closely related to cats, their closest relatives are mongooses and civets. Dogs, on the other hand, are part of the Canidae family, which includes wolves, foxes, and other canids.
- Behavioral Traits: Hyenas exhibit unique behaviors such as grooming, scent marking, and defecation habits that are consistent with other feliforms. Dogs, on the other hand, have their distinct behaviors such as marking territory with urine and displaying various forms of communication.
Why Do Hyenas Look Like Dogs?
Hyenas, despite their dog-like appearance, are more closely related to cats than dogs. Their resemblance to dogs can be attributed to several factors:
- Evolutionary history: Hyenas originated in the jungles of Miocene Eurasia around 22 million years ago. During this time, most early feliform species were still largely arboreal. The first ancestral hyenas were similar to modern African civets, and over time, they evolved into different types, including the dog-like hyenas and the robust bone-crushing hyenas.
- Adaptations for survival: The dog-like hyenas, which thrived around 15 million years ago, were nimble-bodied and wolfish animals. They had longer legs and more pointed jaws, similar to canids. These adaptations allowed them to pursue prey and scavenge efficiently. Their physical characteristics, such as their rounded ears, long muscular necks, and powerful jaws, contributed to their dog-like appearance.
- Climate change and competition: The decline of the dog-like hyenas began around 5-7 million years ago, coinciding with a period of climate change. This change, coupled with the arrival of canids into Eurasia, led to the extinction of most dog-like hyena species. Canids, such as wolves, foxes, and jackals, occupied similar ecological niches and outcompeted the dog-like hyenas.
- Surviving lineage: Despite the extinction of the dog-like hyenas, one surviving lineage emerged – the insectivorous aardwolf. The aardwolf, which is the smallest hyena species, retained some dog-like characteristics but adapted to a specialized diet of insects.
Can Hyenas Breed With Dogs and Cats?
No, hyenas cannot breed with dogs and cats. While hyenas and canids (dogs) share some similarities in behavior and morphology, they belong to different families and are not closely related enough to interbreed.
Hyenas belong to the family Hyaenidae, while dogs belong to the family Canidae. Similarly, hyenas and cats also belong to different families, with hyenas belonging to Hyaenidae and cats belonging to Felidae. Therefore, hyenas cannot breed with dogs or cats due to their distinct genetic differences.
Animals That Look Like Hyenas
- African Wild Dog: The African wild dog, also known as the painted dog, has a similar body shape and size to hyenas. They both have long legs and a lean body, which allows them to be efficient hunters. However, unlike hyenas, African wild dogs have a more colorful coat with patches of black, white, and brown.
- Striped Hyena: The striped hyena bears a resemblance to its spotted counterpart but with a different coat pattern. Instead of spots, striped hyenas have a sandy-colored coat with vertical black stripes running across their body. They also have a similar body structure, with a sloping back and powerful front legs.
- Aardwolf: The aardwolf is a small mammal that belongs to the same family as the hyenas. It has a similar body shape, with a long neck and muscular shoulders. However, the aardwolf has a distinct coat pattern, with vertical stripes on its body. It is also much smaller in size compared to hyenas.
- Spotted Hyena: While this may seem contradictory, it is worth mentioning that some animals within the hyena family can also resemble each other. The spotted hyena, for example, has a unique spot pattern that can fade with age. This can make them appear similar to other hyena species, especially from a distance.
These animals may share certain physical characteristics with hyenas, such as body shape and size, but each has its distinct features and adaptations that set them apart. It is fascinating to observe the diversity within the animal kingdom and how different species have evolved to thrive in their respective environments.
Can Hyenas Be Domesticated?
Hyenas are not typically domesticated animals. While they may share some behavioral similarities with canines, they possess distinct traits that make domestication challenging. Hyenas are highly intelligent and social animals, but their instincts and predatory nature make them unsuitable for domestication. They have a strong predatory drive, and their size and strength can pose a risk to humans.
Additionally, their unique dietary needs and specialized care requirements make it difficult to provide them with a suitable domestic environment. Therefore, hyenas are best appreciated and observed in their natural habitats rather than as domestic pets.
In conclusion, the question of whether hyenas are closer to dogs or cats has been a subject of scientific debate for many years. While their physical appearance may resemble that of a dog, their behavior and genetic makeup align them more closely with the feline family. Through convergent evolution, hyenas have developed certain traits that are similar to canids, such as their hunting style and non-retractable claws.
However, their social structure, grooming habits, and other behaviors are more in line with feliforms. Ultimately, hyenas are a unique and fascinating species that defy easy categorization. By studying these remarkable creatures, we gain a deeper understanding of the complex and diverse world of carnivores.