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Spotted Hyena Cubs Establishing New Clan


In early August, ZooBorns brought you a story about three Spotted Hyena cubs that were flown to Denver Zoo. The trio, made up of females Nia (NEE-yah) and Tavi (TAH-vee), and male Kelele (keh-LAY-lay), just cleared their mandatory quarantine period, and can now be seen by visitors inside the Pahali Mwana yard within the Denver Zoo’s Predator Ridge exhibit.



Hyena_cubs_01Photo Credits: Denver Zoo

The cubs are becoming more confident as they explore their maternity yard in short stints. Zookeepers only keep them out for a couple hours each day, as they are young and tire quickly, and they still need a few more vaccinations before they are allowed out unsupervised. Hyenas have a matriarchal social structure, and zookeepers have observed that Nia has established herself as the leader of this new, young clan.

Kelele was born on June 26 and arrived from the Buffalo Zoo on July 31. Nia and Tavi were born on June 11 and arrived from Kapi’yva Exotics, a private facility in Houston, Texas that specializes in the propagation of rare and endangered species, on August 1. They all came to Denver Zoo through recommendations of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP), which ensures healthy populations and genetic diversity among zoo animals. Kelele’s mother and both of the female cubs’ parents are all from Africa, making their genetics extremely valuable to the North American population, as they are unrelated to most other Hyenas in U.S. zoos.

Kelele, named after the Swahili word for “noisy,” was born to a mother that historically has not cared for her cubs. Zookeepers had been hand-rearing him and wanted to provide him with a clan with which to socialize. Arrangements were then made to have him join the two female cubs, which had already been scheduled to arrive at Denver Zoo. This is very similar to how Hyena cubs grow up in the wild. A mother will place her cub with others of various ages in a communal den. The cubs will then only come out to nurse until they are older.

Long reviled and misrepresented, the Spotted Hyena is one of the most misunderstood mammals on the planet. They are commonly thought of as unintelligent scavengers. However, ongoing research has shown that Spotted Hyenas are actually one of the most intelligent mammals in the world. In fact, researchers have compared Spotted Hyena intelligence with that of great-apes. Spotted hyenas are also skilled hunters. Although they scavenge carcass remnants left behind by other carnivores, Spotted Hyenas’ cooperative hunting strategies have proven to be some of the most successful in the animal world, even more successful than lions.

They are the largest of the four species of Hyena, with adults standing almost 3-feet-tall at the shoulder. Spotted Hyenas have yellowish-brown fur with irregular oval spots and a bushy tail along with large ears and eyes and a short erectile mane on their neck. Their jaws are the most powerful in proportion to their size of any mammal.

They are sometimes called “Laughing Hyenas” due to the unusual “cackle” sound, which is unique to Spotted Hyena. This is just one of their many communication techniques, including whoops and yells and body postures.

Spotted Hyenas are mostly found in the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies spotted hyenas as “Least Concern,” but their numbers are declining due to hunting, trapping and poisoning.