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Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) Fact Sheet: Reproduction & Development

Courtship & Mating

Male initiation with female control

  • Engagement most often initiated by the male, rarely by the female (Szykman et al. 2001)
  • Successful mating entirely dependent on the female (East et al. 2003)
    • Unique external genital structure and social ranking preclude forced copulation (East et al. 2003)
    • Females aggressively reject unwanted attention (East and Hofer 2013; Kruuk 1972)
      • Bite at males to rebuff advances (East and Hofer 2013; Kruuk 1972)
    • Prefer mating with dominant males; may extend from close relationships built over time (East and Hofer 2001)

Male tactics

  • Range from harassment to friendly overtures (East and Hofer 2013)
    • Successful copulation can follow use either tactic (East and Hofer 2013)
  • Assess female's reproductive status on a near continual basis (Frank 1986b)
    • Approach and cautiously sniff female (Frank 1986b)
    • Inspect the ground where female lies (Frank 1986b)
  • Follow or shadow females (Frank 1986b)
    • Often increases in frequency as she reaches estrus (Frank 1986b)
      • Frequently occurs when the female is not in estrus (East and Hofer 2001)
      • Typically for short periods of time, 1-3 days (East and Hofer 2001)
        • Strategy possibly builds familiarity (East and Hofer 2001)
    • Multiple males may pursue single female; vocalizations in such instances often similar to those given at a kill site (Kruuk 1972)
    • Harassment in the form of a male following and continually attempting to mount female (Kruuk 1972)

No evidence for lasting pair bonds (Kruuk 1972; Szykman et al. 2001)

  • Females mate with multiple males (East et al. 2003)
  • Litter mates commonly have separate fathers (East et al. 2003)


  • Duration and timing (from Frank 1986b; Kruuk 1972)
    • Lasts for several minutes, c. 5-10
    • Typically taking place at night
  • Copulatory behavior (from Frank 1986b)
    • Male slowly advances with head held low, bobbing up and down
      • Shies away at the slightest movement from the female, though sometimes unexpectedly lunging and biting at her at which time she defends herself by biting at him
    • Follows should she move away
  • Repeated bouts of copulation separated by short intervals (Kruuk 1972)


Year-round reproduction (from Kruuk 1972; Racey and Skinner 1979)

  • No clear birthing season
    • Suggested by age distribution of cubs at den sites

Estrus cycle

  • No firm data on estrus activity (Kruuk 1972)
  • Possibly polyestrous
    • Receptive to reproductions several times each year (Kruuk 1972; Racey and Skinner 1979)
      • Based on observations in the wild (East and Hofer 2013; Kruuk 1972)
  • No evidence for reproductive synchronicity among clan females (Szykman et al. 2001)
    • Unlike female lions (Szykman et al. 2001)

Gestation & Birth


  • Periods variably reported
    • 110 days commonly reported (Kruuk 1972; East and Hofer 2013)
    • 98-111 days based on early reports of breeding in managed care (Kruuk 1972)


  • Location
    • Occurs at isolated natal dens; cubs transferred to communal den site 2-5 weeks of age (Henschel and Skinner 1990b; Holekamp et al. 1996)
      • Mother may inspect several existing earthen holes before selecting a site (Henschel and Skinner 1990b)
        • One female was observed giving birth and using an abandoned aardvark burrow (Henschel and Skinner 1990b)
      • May be enlarged to accommodate the mother; unlike communal den (Henschel and Skinner 1990b)
  • Parturition
    • Duration
      • c.12 minutes, similar to striped hyena in zoos (Henschel and Skinner 1990b)
  • Litter characteristics
    • 1-3 cubs per litter, though 1-2 typically (Holekamp et al. 1996; Kruuk 1972)
      • Twins not uncommonly sired by different fathers, c. 35% of sibling pairs in one study of 75 twin litters (East et al. 2003)
      • Triplets typically do not survive, as females only lactate through two nipples (East and Hofer 2013)
    • Cubs born head first with eyes open; milk teeth and canines fully erupted; brownish-black hair (Henschel and Skinner 1990b; Kruuk 1972; Pournelle 1965)
    • Cub weight c. 1.5 kg (c. 3.3 lb) (Kruuk 1972; Pournelle 1965)

Communal dens house cubs

  • Transferred to communal den site 2-5 weeks of age (Henschel and Skinner 1990b; Holekamp et al. 1996)
    • Cubs guarded by mother at natal den prior to transfer (Henschel and Skinner 1990b; Holekamp et al. 1996)
  • Den structure
    • Hole dug into the ground (Mills 1984b)
    • Large entrances narrow to tunnels c.40 cm in width, not large enough to house an adult (Mills 1984b)
      • Cubs dig hole and mother(s) widen the entrance (East and Hofer 2013)

Between birth interval

  • Duration related to social dominance (from East and Hofer 2013 unless otherwise noted)
    • Dominant females have shorter intervals than subordinates (East and Hofer 2013; Holekamp et al. 1996)
    • c. 18 months for females successfully raising a litter
      • Likely shorter after the loss of a litter
    • Range: 6.6-28.7 months

Life Stages


  • Care
    • Solely provided by own mother for a prolonged period, unlike some observations of female brown hyena that occasionally nurse one another's offspring (Kruuk 1972; Mills 1984b; Mills 1989)
      • 12 or more months spent at the den site (Hofer and East 1993c; Mills 1984b)
        • Often left alone with den mates; mothers typically remain away unless nursing (Kruuk 1972)
    • Nutrition
      • Milk
        • Milk is the sole source of nutrition for 9-12 months (Mills 1984b; Mills 1989)
        • Greatly enriched in protein (14.9%) and fat (14.1%) (East and Hofer 2013)
          • Highest protein content of any terrestrial carnivore
          • High fat content compared to other terrestrial carnivores, exceeded only by that of Palearctic bears and the sea otter
      • Meat
        • Rarely carried to the den, unlike observations of brown hyena (Kruuk 1972; Mills 1984b; Mills 1989)
  • Development
    • Vocal and mobile within 10 days of birth (Kruuk 1972)
    • Hair gradually turns to spotted coat (as in adults), c.1.5-2 months of age (Kruuk 1972)
      • White rings develop around the eyes c.6 weeks of age (East and Hofer 2013; Pournelle 1965)
        • Lighter hair spreading across the face to the neck, shoulders and rest of body (East and Hofer 2013; Pournelle 1965)
      • Legs last to retain dark pigment (Kruuk 1972)
    • Participate in greeting "ceremonies" by c. 1 month of age (Kruuk 1972)
    • Weaned at c.1 year of age; twins typically nursed for longer periods (Holekamp et al. 1996; Mills 1984b)
      • 12-15 months in southern Kalahari clans (Mills 1984b)
      • 6.7-18.8 months based on results of a 7 year study of a large clan living in Masai Mara National Reserve, in southwest Kenya (Holekamp et al. 1996)
  • Growth and survival
    • Speed of growth and odds of survival positively associated with mother's social rank (East and Hofer 2013)
      • Higher ranking mother's feed young more frequently
    • Mortality high within first year of life, 40-50% of cubs (East and Hofer 2013)

Juveniles (to c. 2 years for males; c. 3 years for females)

  • From weaning until reaching reproductive maturity (East and Hofer 1991b)
  • Accompany adults to forage after 9-12 months (Hofer and East 1993b; Kruuk 1972; Mills 1984b)

Adults (c. 3 years)

  • Males
    • Mature slightly earlier than females; typically c. 2 years of age (East and Hofer 2013; Kruuk 1972)
    • Leave natal clan before reaching sexual maturity; join other clans or range widely (East and Hofer 2013; Mills 1984b)
      • Assumed clans often hold territories near that of the natal clan, 8-10 km distance in one study (Boydston et al. 2005)
      • Non-dispersing males uncommon, 3% in one study that followed three clans for nearly a decade (East and Hofer 2001)
    • First reproduce c.1-2 years after joining a clan, or about 3-4 years of age (East et al. 2003)
      • Reproductive success low at first, increases with social status and tenure (East et al. 2003)
    • Social status increases as tenure within the clan lengthens and/or more dominant males die or leave the clan (East and Hofer 2013)
      • Tenured males seek relationships most often with older females; recent immigrant males show no clear association (East and Hofer 2013; Szykman et al. 2001)
      • Recent immigrant males may be favored by younger females, possibly minimizing inbreeding within the clan (East and Hofer 2013; East et al. 2003)
  • Females
    • Generally remain within natal clan (East and Hofer 2013; Mills 1984b)
      • Acquire social rank immediately below their mother on reaching adulthood (East and Hofer 2013)
        • Mechanism governing social inheritance complex; elevated in utero androgen levels influence cub aggression, but adopted cubs tend to gain a rank similar to their adoptive mother (East and Hofer 2013)
      • Social status may decline with the death of a dominant mother (East and Hofer 2013)
    • Age of first reproduction highly variable; 2-5 years of age; more dominant females reproduce at an earlier age than their counterparts (East and Hofer 2013; Frank 1986a; Holekamp et al. 1996)

Typical Life Expectancy

Wild populations

  • Not well studied, though see Watts (2007)

Managed care

  • Median life expectancy
    • 24 years (AZA 2024)


Common causes of mortality (from Kruuk 1972)

  • Killed by lions or other spotted hyenas
    • A significant contributor to mortality
    • Lion-caused mortality is often the result of battles for control of a carcass
  • Conflicts with humans
  • Disease

Annual mortality rate

  • 13-15% within protected areas (East and Hofer 2013)

Infant Care

Spotted hyena and cubs

Pups with mom. Spotted hyenas are born with eyes open, dark hair, and a full set of teeth. They spend nearly a full year at their den site, nursed solely by their mother before heading out with clan members to forage.

Image credit: © hyper7pro from Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Boydston et al. (2005)
East and Hofer (1991b)
East and Hofer (2001)
East and Hofer (2013)
East et al. (2003)
Frank (1986a)
Frank (1986b)
Henschel and Skinner (1990b)
Hofer and East (1993b)
Hofer and East (1993c)
Holekamp et al. (1996)
Kruuk (1972)
Mills (1984b)
Mills (1989)
Pournelle (1965)
Racey and Skinner (1979)
Szykman et al. (2001)

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