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Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names

  • Names reflect the animals appearance and behavior (from Brottman 2012; Honer et al. 2008)
    • Spotted hyena or hyaena
    • Laughing hyena or hyaena
  • Etymology (from Brown 1956; Gotch 1979; OED)
    • Hyena from Latin hyaena and earlier Greek hyaina or huaina;
      • Combination of the term hys for "pig" and the feminine suffix aina
      • Possibly due to similarities in the bristly mane of both animals

Scientific name

  • Etymology (from Gotch 1979)
    • Crocuta an uncommonly used Latin word meaning "an unknown wild animal of Ethiopia"
    • Crocus (Latin) or krokotos (Greek) referring to the yellow color of saffron

Evolutionary History

Close relatives (from Koepfli et al. 2006)

  • Feliform carnivores
    • More closely related to cats than dogs
    • Behavior and morphology outwardly more similar to canines

Family Hyaenidae

  • Historically diverse
    • >60 (probable) species identified from living animals and the fossil record (Koepfli et al. 2006; Turner et al. 2008)
    • Surviving members of the family represent a small subset of the evolutionary lineage (Koepfli et al. 2006)
  • Adaptive types or ecomorph groups" (from Turner et al. 2008 unless otherwise noted)
    • Reflect structural evolution within the clase
    • 6 adaptive types
      • Civet-like insectivore/omnivore (adapted for climbing)
      • Mongoose-like insectivore/omnivore (adapted for climbing)
      • Jackal- and wolf-like meat and bone eater
      • Cursorial meat and bone eaters (adapted for running and hunting)
      • Transitional bone crackers
      • Fully-developed bone crackers
    • Civet-like ecomorph is reflective of the earliest members of the family
      • Date to the middle-Miocene, c. 17-18 million years ago
    • Canid-like clade contained the largest hyenid, Pachycrocuta brevirostrus (Palmqvist et al. 2011)
      • Weighed c. 110 kg (c. 243 lb)
      • 20% larger than the spotted hyena
    • Canid-like clade diversity declined with the rise of true canines, of the family Canidae

Living hyena species

  • 4 species in 3 genera (Honer et al. 2008; Koepfli et al. 2006; Werdelin 2013)
    • C. crocuta - the spotted or laughing hyena
    • Hyaena hyaena - the striped hyena; medium-sized carnivore with vertical black stripes on sides of body (Wagner 2013)
    • H. brunnea - the brown hyena or standwolf; medium-sized, long-haired scavenger (Mills 2013)
    • Proteles cristata - the aardwolf; small, termite-feeding specialist
  • Bone crushers (from Koepfli et al. 2006)
    • Collective term given to spotted, striped, and brown hyenas and their similarly toothed ancestors

Genus Crocuta

  • Historical diversity (Werdelin 2013)
    • Arose prior to the Plio-Pleistocene, c. 5 million years ago
    • Fossil remains of 4 species found throughout Africa
      • C. crocuta represents the sole surviving species
    • Morphological changes captured in the fossil record suggest a transition from solitary scavenging to group-hunting (as in modern spotted hyenas)
  • C. crocuta (spotted hyena)
    • Found over much or Eurasia during the Pleistocene (c.11,700-2,588,000 years ago), based on fossil remains (Turner et al. 2008)
      • "Superabundant" in western European cave deposits from the late Pleistocene (Turner et al. 2008)
    • Earliest European fossils date to c. 780,000 years old; found near Atapuerca, Spain (Turner et al. 2008)
    • Genetically and morphologically variable; designation of subspecies not currently recognized (East and Hofer 2013)
      • No region specific characteristics yet identified

Cultural History

Inaccuracies in natural history

  • Myth 1:
    • Viewed as the hybrid offspring of dogs and cats or other animal combinations; interesting description by Sir Walter Raleigh in his History of the World (Glickman 1995; Gould 1981)
      • Spotted, brown, and stripped hyena characteristics were often combined in descriptions of a single species (Glickman 1995)
    • Reality: no reports of hyena species hybridizing with one another or any other animal
  • Myth 2:
    • Classified as gluttonous scavengers, forcing regurgitation to allow for the consumption of even greater amounts of food (Gould 1981)
      • First appearing in reports by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) (Gould 1981)
    • Reality: regurgitation is a necessary byproduct of a diet heavy in indigestible material (eg. hair, bone) (Bearder 1977)
  • Myth 3:
    • Considered hermaphrodites by many; though not Aristotle (Gould 1981; Glickman 1995)
      • Repeated in the writings of many scholars through the early 17th century (Glickman 1995)
    • Reality: structure of the female's external genitalia resembles that of males, though all internal reproductive organs are clearly "female"; unique to this hyena species (see Sexual Dimorphism)

Historical treatment and prejudice

  • Pliny the Elder perpetuated several false claims (Glickman 1995)
    • Falicy: prey, including humans, are lured to their death by hyena mimicking speech or producing other vocalizations
    • Falicy: hyena are walking medicine cabinets; hides, teeth, eyes, and genitals used to confer protection, cure head and tooth pain, and facilitate conception and sexual desire
  • Medieval European views
    • Featured hyenas (referred to as the "yenas") in several bestiaries (Glickman 1995)
    • Common belief that hyenas dug up grave sites to consume human remains, a (false) belief possibly dating to description by Aristotle (Glickman 1995; IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group)

African folklore and myth

  • Associated with witchcraft and the supernatural (IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group)
    • Sudanese folklore and 14th century Persian medical writings warn of werewolf-like combinations of hyena and man (IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group)
  • Stereotyped as cowardly, cruel, or vengeful
    • Commonly held African myth that God, represented as the sky, left the earth and retreated upward due to the numerous insults of humans (often women); in one version a rope connecting people to God was severed by a hyena who (along with a weaverbird) climbed the rope and angered God (Parrinder 1986)
    • An animal fable featuring the hare and the hyena as a hunting duo; hyena dominates hare, keeping all the catch for himself; the cunning hare disguises himself and frightens hyena into surrendering all the spoils (Parrinder 1986)

Modern depictions often unkind

  • Show hyenas as ferocious or simple-minded cowards (Glickman 1995)
    • Disney characters in The Lion King movie (1994); trio of laughing hyenas allied with the villain to overthrow the noble king of the lions
    • Hemingway found humor in the death of a hyena shot on safari in Africa; in Green Hills of Africa (1935) (Glickman 1995)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Infraclass: Eutheria

Order: Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, raccoons, weasels, civets, mongooses, hyenas)

Suborder: Feliformia (cat-like carnivores)

Family: Hyaenidae (hyenas)

Genus: Crocuta

Species: Crocuta crocuta (Erxleben, 1777) - spotted hyena

Taxonomy (ITIS 2014)

Late 19th Century Rendering

Spotted hyenas in a drawing

Illustration from Alfred Brehm's The Animals of the World. Brehm's Life of Animals (1895).

Image credit: © From the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Bearder (1977)
Brottman (2012)
Brown (1956)
East and Hofer (2013)
Glickman (1995)
Gotch (1979)
Gould (1981)
Honer et al. (2008)
ITIS (2014)
IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group
Koepfli et al. (2006)
Mills (2013)
Palmqvist et al. (2011)
Parrinder (1986)
Turner et al. (2008)
Wagner (2013)
Werdelin (2013)

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