The Hyena’s in the Timbavati Game Reserve - are they cats or dogs?
This is a question I often get asked while out on a game drive with guests, and the answer is actually very simple. They are neither!
Hyenas are hyenas, members of the Hyenidae family, while cats are members of the Felidae family and dogs are members of the Canidae family.
I guess this answer is a little boring, so maybe a better question to try and answer is, “are hyenas more closely related to cats or dogs?” I imagine anyone looking at a hyena for the first time would agree that they appear very “dog” like; even their spoor is typically dog like with the double lobed back pad as opposed to the triple lobed back pad of cats. However, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving, so to find the answer to this question we need to look at a taxonomic chart and figure out where hyenas fit in.
All carnivores, including dogs, cats and hyenas fall into the order Carnivora, but that’s where the similarities end. If we were looking at the bigger picture, we would then move down from order to families, where we would again be stumped with three separate families. But luckily for us there are lesser looked at sub-orders grouping closely related families. The two sub-orders we need to look at are the Feliformia and Caniformia sub-orders, representing cat like and dog like families respectively. Here the distinction becomes clear. In the Feliformia sub-order we find the Felidae and the Hyaenidae families, so surprisingly hyenas are more closely related to cats.
So where did the Hyaenidae family evolve from? Who were their direct relatives?
Well the Hyaenidae family is relatively young, and their direct relatives are in fact actually Civets. It is thought that about 26 million years ago the Hyenids started to move away from the Civets to occupy an empty niche in the ecosystem - one of scavenging from the larger cats of the era. Over time, their anatomy changed, making them perfect for the job. They evolved their powerful jaws and bone crushing teeth about 10 million years ago. At that point in time, there were 10 separate hyena species living together, one which was as large as a cow. Imagine that guy sniffing around your tent at night…… Over time as the large cat numbers decreased, so did the hyenas, and at present we have 4 members of the Hyaenidae family roaming the earth. Namely our spotted hyena (as found in the Timbavati Game Reserve), brown hyena, stripped hyena and the aardwolf.
By: Peter Breedveld, Shindzela Tented Safari Camp