hyena (hĪ-ēˈnə) [key], carnivorous, chiefly nocturnal mammal of the Old World family Hyaenidae. Although doglike in appearance, hyenas are more closely related to civets (family Viverridae) and cats (family Felidae) than to dogs (family Canidae). The front legs of a hyena are longer than the hind ones, giving the back a sloping appearance. Despite their reputation as scavengers, hyenas are also skillful hunters; they can crush bones with their strong teeth and jaws. They sleep by day, in caves or burrows. Hyenas range over most of Africa and SW Asia. Three species are generally recognized. The spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta, of Africa S of the Sahara, is the largest and boldest species; it stands 21/2 ft (76 cm) high at the shoulder and has a gray coat with irregular patches. It is also known as the laughing hyena, because of its cry, which resembles maniacal laughter. Often abroad in the day as well as at night, it pursues game in packs and even invades camps and villages in search of food. The females are dominant and more aggressive, outranking the males in the pack. The smaller striped hyena, Hyaena hyaena, of Asia and N Africa and the brown hyena, or strand wolf, H. brunnea, of S Africa are shyer and more nocturnal and solitary in their habits. The former is grayish brown with darker stripes; the latter is dark brown over most of the body. The aardwolf is the fourth member of the hyena family. Hyenas are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Hyaenidae.
See H. Kruuk, The Spotted Hyena (1972); J. L. Gittleman, ed., Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution (1989).