What exactly is a hyena? Are hyenas a member of the canine family? Or is it a feline animal or a whole family of animals? The answer to that question is a bit complicated. The hyena can be described as an animal with a “dog-like” body and “cat-like” anatomy, but it is truly a unique creature in itself.
However, misconceptions about this animal still abound. They are not a wild dog, and they are certainly not simple scavengers.
Let’s start with the basics: hyenas are a separate family in the order Carnivora. This family contains four existing species. Spotted hyenas, brown hyenas, and ground wolves are all native to sub-Saharan Africa. The striped hyena is endemic to North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
Exactly, none of them are threatened with extinction, but striped hyenas and brown hyenas are both threatened by habitat loss and poaching. And according to fossil data, we know that many species of this family went extinct in the past, dating back millions of years.
All four species share some characteristics, but the spotted hyena is perhaps the strangest. It has undergone some significant changes over the past few million years that distinguish it from other closely related animals.
Striped hyenas are nocturnal animals but can be seen coming out of their burrows around dusk and dawn.
Do hyenas belong to the dog family or the cat family?
Basically, hyenas are not a real cat like tigers, leopards and domestic cats, all of which belong to the family Felidae. Instead, hyenas belong to a separate group that is more closely related to the clade of cats than to dogs.
The order Carnivora to which hyenas belong first appeared about 50 to 60 million years ago. These early carnivores developed specialized teeth for tearing flesh. Based on at least partial reconstructions of the fossil record, paleontologists know that some of them may have resembled modern weasels and were adapted to climb trees.
The first carnivores divided very rapidly into separate lines of dogs and cats. Both branches go their separate ways, creating new forms. Then, about 30 million years ago, the cat lineage split again into two main groups. An offshoot gave rise to the modern cat family. The other branch gave birth to hyenas, mongooses, and civets (like the Asian civet).
About 10 to 20 million years ago, the hyena lineage really started to form as a unique and distinct group. It branched off into at least three distinct families, only one of which (the true hyena family) is clearly still alive today. Changing environmental conditions over the past 10 million years have finally begun to favor hyenas that have evolved to be larger and healthier.
Although the last time they shared a common ancestor was about 30 million years ago, cats, hyenas, mongooses, and civets all belong to a single category that taxonomists now call Feliformia.
Feliformia is derived from a Latin term meaning an animal with a cat-like appearance or appearance, simply a description of their evolutionary relationship. It is not a description of what they are. And in fact, hyenas are no longer a typical animal in the modern cat family.
How are hyenas like cats?
The evolutionary relationship between hyenas and cats may not be obvious at first because they look so different. But there are actually a few characteristics that they share in common. A defining feature shared by nearly all members of Feliformia (cat-like carnivores) is the unique bony structure of the middle and inner ear. It’s a very small detail, but its presence in nearly all Feliformia species suggests that it may have evolved very early in the lineage and then passed on to all offspring. grandchildren.
Another similarity between hyenas and cats is that the tongue is very coarse, consisting of similar spines or bristles to help strip prey and also to help with grooming. You may be interested to discover that hyenas groom themselves with their tongues in a similar way to cats.
However, aside from a few other obvious similarities, hyenas and cats are very different animals. After all, 30 million years have passed since they last shared a common ancestor. This is more than enough time for hyenas to evolve into something very different. For example, 30 million years is larger than the time that separates humans from most apes and monkeys. So despite being a member of Feliformia, hyenas really don’t look like cats at all.
How are hyenas different from cats?
Real hyenas differ from cats in many ways. One of the most important differences is the swarm nature of their hunting strategy. While some species prefer to scavenge for leftovers, hyenas are also talented predators. Unlike cats, they usually cannot climb trees or ambush their prey, preferring instead to chase their prey on the ground and tear them apart with their teeth rather than their claws. These teeth actually bear a lot of resemblance to the dog family. This is probably because teeth are very useful tools for the hyena’s pack hunting strategy.
The hunting strategy also reflects the social structure of this species. The basis of hyena society is the clan, which can consist of 80 members and sometimes even more. Although hyenas work together to take down prey, life in a pack is not strictly a partnership. The hyenas form very strict dominance hierarchies that determine access to both food and mates.
Striped hyenas, brown hyenas and ground wolves have all adapted to societies usually led by males. Whereas spotted hyenas are quite the opposite, their social structure is built around a matrilineal organization, in which a single female represents the core of the clan. It will have priority access to food and mates over other females.
In summary, we can say that hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs. However, this relationship is quite distant. The last time they shared a common ancestor with cats was about 30 million years ago. This has given hyenas plenty of time to develop their own unique traits.