Hyenas are moderately large terrestrial carnivores native to Africa and Asia. They are members of the family Hyaenidae.
Although hyenas look like rather large wild dogs, they make up a separate biological family which is most closely related to Herpestidae (the family of mongooses and meerkats). The hyena has one of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom and an adult of the species has only the large cats of the family Felidae (Lions, Tigers, Jaguars, etc.) to fear.
Hyenas range in length from 1.2 - 1.5 meters (3.9 - 4.9 ft) including the tail, which is 30 cm (12 inches) in length. An adult hyena weighs between 25 and 55 kg (55 - 120 lb). The pelt can be light to dark-brown on Brown Hyenas, while the color can be gray, sometimes nearly white on Striped Hyenas. Aardwolves have a warm, sand-colored coat, while the coats of Spotted Hyenas can range from dark-brown fur to amber and reddish in color.
In ancient times, large hyenas ranged over much of Europe and Asia, but they are much reduced in range and diversity today. Only four species survive: the Spotted, Brown, and Striped Hyenas (which together make up the subfamily Hyaeninae), and the Aardwolf, which is the only member of the subfamily Protelinae.
Despite common belief, only some species belonging to this family are scavengers: while the brown and the striped hyena derive most of their diets from scavenging, the spotted hyena is not only a real predator, but also the most effective predator on the African savannah. The Aardwolf usually eat insects like termites.
Hyenas are also highly intelligent predators, even more intelligent than the lions (some scientists claim they are of equal intelligence to certain apes). One indication of hyena intelligence is that hyenas will move their kills closer to each other to protect them from scavengers; another indication is their strategic hunting methods.
A group of spotted hyenas (called a "clan") can include 5-90 members and is led by a single alpha female. A complicated social hierarchy governs the clan. Cubs often learn this social system before they begin to walk. Females are the dominating members, followed in rank by cubs, while adult males rank lowest. Male hyenas, which are usually smaller and less aggressive than females, often leave the clan when they are about two years of age. Females tend to mate with males from other clans, thereby preventing inbreeding. Unlike many other animals, female hyenas hardly ever mate with highly aggressive males. Instead, they select calm, patient and charming mates. Patience is especially important since courtship can last as much as a year. For this reason, dominant and impatient males have difficulty finding mates. Despite the complicated courtship, the female raises her pups without the male.
In some parts of Africa, some men were thought to turn into hyenas at night. In the former Kingdom of Kaffa (now part of south-western Ethiopia), qora or were-hyenas were outlawed by special laws. Those accused of turning into hyenas at night were bound and presented to a priest of Docco, who would determine if the accused was, in fact, a qora. If found guilty, the individual would be sentenced to slavery, death, or exile. Although only a priest of Docco could make this determination, any person could accuse another of this crime. As G.W.B. Huntingford wrote, "This led to much injustice, and according to old Kafa men the law was often set into motion.