The Wiley and Surprisingly Cute Hyena

Jessica Vitale is tracking and studying hyenas in the Okavango River Delta. These animals, so often portrayed negatively in popular culture, are actually quite admirable for several reasons, including their social flexibility (even in relation to other species), and their playful tenacity in the face of savage survival.

By Jessica Vitale

Greetings from the Okavango! My name is Jessica Vitale, and I am currently a PhD student in the Animal Behaviour and Ecology research group at the University of Nottingham (U.K.), and a National Geographic grantee. I began my field research on spotted hyenas in March 2014, and I am halfway through my first field season. I wanted to take the time to share some of the striking photos I’ve been able to capture of these often misunderstood animals.

Resting cub at communal den
Napping in seclusion. (Photo by Jessica Vitale)

My research project focuses on the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), a social carnivore living throughout the continent of Africa.

Spotted hyenas are members of the large predator “guild”, a group of species that compete for resources such as prey and habitat, which also includes the African lion, cheetah, African wild dog, and leopard. My study takes place within the Okavango Delta ecosystem of Botswana, an essential habitat for all five species of the large predator guild. However, there is little known about the behavior of spotted hyenas within this ecosystem.

What we do know is that hyenas live in groups called “clans”, which are made up of multiple females and males following a strict dominance hierarchy. They exhibit behavioral flexibility across populations in aspects such as clan sizes, foraging patterns, and interspecies interactions.

Hyenas raise their cubs in a communal den, where several females bring their cubs of differing ages. Therefore, you can find cubs of all ages and sizes in a single den! (Photo by Jessica Vitale)

Therefore, I am asking a variety of questions about Okavango hyenas, focusing on social dynamics and their interactions with the other large predator species. How many individuals make up a clan? What are their territory sizes? How do individuals associate with other members of their group? How do hyenas interact with other predators? Do hyenas eavesdrop on the sound and smell cues given by other predators?

These photos are all from the same communal den, which is located in the Moremi Game Reserve, and home to four cubs. I camped overnight at this den several times (sleeping on top of my field vehicle) to observe their behavior and capture identification photos.

Communal den - Moremi Game Reserve
A mother and her young. (Photo by Jessica Vitale)

Part of my research entails determining clan membership, so the main reason that I was visiting this den was to take ID photos to figure out which clan these individuals belong to. Determining clan associations is a long process because hyenas live in a “fission-fusion” society (breaking up groups and recombining frequently), which means that they travel in subgroups of varying size and that the entire clan is rarely seen together at once.

Hyaena at giraffe carcass
This photo was taken early in the morning after I slept out near an adult giraffe carcass. Hyenas were feeding on the carcass continuously from 5:00 p.m. until around 8:00 a.m. the next day! (Photo by Jessica Vitale)

Hopefully soon we will be able to identify each of the animals seen here individually. But it’ll take some time—our database of spotted hyenas in this area is now up to 285 individuals!


Changing Planet

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I've lived and traveled all over the United States and the world. I've been in Germany, Holland, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. I've completed sustainability projects in the latter two countries and studied and written on advanced theoretical biology and technology topics, like artificial life and the search for alien organisms in strange places. People say I am very funny and entertaining. I suppose I am. I am very passionate about a lot of topics and great at analyzing things to an interminable depth. I'm highly imaginative and daydream a lot—not on the job, mind you. Writing has always been my primary focus and greatest area of expertise. I'm currently involved in writing a monograph on first-line HIV treatments, as well as a fictional novel. My interests include biological and geological history, travel (but who doesn't say that, right?), weight training, nature, photography, romanticized historical movies and books, exploration and investigation. I help National Geographic explorers and grantees to publish blogs live from the field, and write original posts covering their work as well.