I was on Robbie Cheadle’s blog recently and was intrigued when she described some of Southern Africa’s wild life as ‘the Big Five’ and ‘the Ugly Five’! I had to ask, right? Well, here’s what Robbie said.
Robbie: The “Ugly Five”, comprising of the warthog, hyena, wildebeest, marabou stork, and vulture, aren’t as well known, but also play an important role in the southern African eco systems. The hyena, marabou stork, and vulture are all scavengers who help ‘clean up’ the bushveld.
One of the most interesting of the “Ugly Five” is the hyena which is one of the most misunderstood and persecuted animals in history. Throughout history, hyenas have been regarded as vermin and a liability to local communities. Disney’s movie, The Lion King, also perpetrated the myth of hyenas as despicable animals.
Me: Having watched The Lion King many times when the Offspring was little, I knew that the hyenas were depicted as evil henchmen to Mufasa, the uber villain of the story, so ugly and despicable. But what did Robbie mean about them being ‘misunderstood’?
Robbie: The reality is that hyenas are very interesting creatures with surprising social behaviours. They also play an important role in the ecosystem.
The spotted hyena is the most common hyena in sub-Saharan Africa and, while not yet threatened, their populations are declining. Historically, they lived in groups called clans, comprising of up to eighty animals. Currently, spotted hyenas live in clans of between ten and forty individuals in the game reserves and national parks of southern Africa. Hyena clans are led by a dominant female and all females are dominant over the males. The alpha male has a lower status in the clan than the lowest ranked female.
Me: Whoa! I knew that in a pride of lions, it’s actually the females that do the bulk of the hunting, but the male is definitely the alpha. So why are hyenas so different? You will not believe the answer!
Robbie: The genitalia of the female hyena closely resembles that of the male. The clitoris is shaped and positioned like a penis, it is a pseudo-penis, and it can become erect. The female has no external vaginal opening as the labia are fused to form a pseudo-scrotum.
Female hyenas chose their mate, and the males perform a bowing display to females before mating. Due to the females pseudo-penis, mating is difficult and males cannot force themselves onto females.
Female hyenas have three times more testosterone than males and this results in an unusual and risky labour process. Birth takes place through the pseudo-scrotum and the birth canal is approximately one inch across. Consequently, suffocation in the birth canal is common for hyena cubs and the mortality rate for first-time mothers is high.
Me: Biology and genetics are my passions so I was astounded to learn just how different hyenas really are from most other mammals. Why do female hyena have three times more testosterone than the males? And why do the males have so much less?
It’s a puzzle. Evolution usually favours mutations that lead to greater reproduction, yet amongst hyenas, their biology is actually counter survival: less offspring leads to a greater chance that the whole species could die out.
Luckily, the differences don’t stop with reproduction.
Robbie: Hyenas have a reputation for being scavengers that feed on leftovers from other carnivores kills. While it is true that hyenas are opportunistic feeders, they are also excellent hunters and directly kill between 60% and 95% of their food.
Spotted hyenas are able to eat and digest all parts of their prey except for the hair, hooves and keratin sheaths of antelope horns. Spotted hyenas also have an incredibly strong bite force which can break the leg bones of a giraffe. Their ability to break and digest bones gives them a food source opportunity that isn’t available to other animals.
Me: Ah hah! So what the hyena loses in reproductive capability, it gains back in its ability to find food where other great predators can’t. And make no mistake, they are predators.
Robbie: Hyenas have a reputation for laughing. If you hear a hyena laughing near by you in the bush, RUN! The hyena laughs to signal excitement that it has found food. The pitch of their laugh indicates their status in the clan.
Me: I have to admit, the bit about the hyena laughing to signal that it has found food does send shivers down my spine. The thought of being caught and having my bones cracked by those incredibly strong jaws is not…pleasant. My respect for hyenas has gone up…a lot!
This is a photo that Robbie sent me:
Photo credit: Spotted hyena eating a dead buffalo (that died of natural causes) in the Madikwe Game Reserve. Picture by Robbie Cheadle
I have no idea how Robbie took that photo, but my respect for her and her hyenas has skyrocketed. I always knew she could write, but since doing this post, I’ve come to realise just how knowledgeable she really is.
In her latest book, ‘Lion Scream, Syllabic Poetry About Southern African Wildlife’, Robbie combines an amazing knowledge of the native fauna of her homeland with a style of poetry that touches the heart as well as the head.
This is one of the poems from the book, and it’s about hyenas, of course!
My gender is obscure
One of nature’s tricks
I have the same appendages as my mate
I am also bigger
Much more aggressive
Birthing is difficult
My babies – stillborn
After suffocating in my birth canal
Only the strong survive
To continue my line
When my pack makes a kill
I get my share first
When all females have fed, and
then our offspring
Then, and only then
Do the males partake
‘Lion Scream’ also contains some fabulous info. about the ‘Big Five’:
‘The “Big Five” group of African animals is a well-known concept among lovers of African wildlife. Who doesn’t know the lion, buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, and leopard? The “Big Five” is so well known, there is even a fondant version which live in the Chocolate Land Zoo.’The Fondant Five from Sir Chocolate and the Fondant Five story and cookbook, by Robbie Cheadle
And yes, Robbie did sculpt all of those gorgeous beasts from fondant [icing]!
For those who don’t know, Robbie Cheadle is an award-winning, bestselling author, who has published thirteen children’s book and three poetry books. Her work has also appeared in poetry and short story anthologies.
Robbie also has two novels published under the name of Roberta Eaton Cheadle and has horror, paranormal, and fantasy short stories featured in several anthologies under this name.
The ten Sir Chocolate children’s picture books, co-authored by Robbie and Michael Cheadle, are written in sweet, short rhymes which are easy for young children to follow and are illustrated with pictures of delicious cakes and cake decorations. Each book also includes simple recipes or biscuit art directions which children can make under adult supervision.
Robbie’s blog includes recipes, fondant and cake artwork, poetry, and book reviews.
You can also find Robbie on her website, Youtube channel, Goodreads, and Twitter. Or why not go straight to her Amazon page to check out her books?
My thanks to Robbie for sharing her amazing knowledge of hyenas. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and I know I’ve learned a lot as well. I hope you enjoy it too. 🙂
Have a great weekend everyone,