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Basic Information

Hyenas are a type of carnivorous mammal. There are four known species alive today. Spotted hyenas are predators, but striped hyenas are primarily scavengers (as are the rare brown hyena). The Aardwolf is the smallest species of hyena, and it lives off a diet of insects. Hyena's resemble dogs due to convergent evolution, but are actually more closely related to cats and civets than they are to canines. Hyenas tend to have thick necks and short hindquarters (at least compared to a dog).

The spotted hyena species displays bizarre sexual dimorphism, in that the female of this species is much larger than the male, and has external genitalia that physically resembles that of the males.

Hyenas mark their territory with a glandular secretion that has a pungent scent that smells soapy or like something is burning. This is apparently referred to as "hyena butter" … but should not be regarded as in any way substitutable for regular butter.

Some of the natural calls of hyenas (especially the striped variety) sound like creepy laughter.

The three largest species of hyena have a vicious bite, with jaws well-adapted to cracking open bones. Sometimes a scared hyena will play dead. Hyenas tend to be timid around humans, but can grow bold after sunset. Man-eating hyenas are quite rare, but certainly possible. Several extinct species of prehistoric hyenas were larger and preyed on humans.

Fiction and pop culture often characterize hyenas as cowardly or incompetent, but in truth hyena packs are known to frequently drive off lions away from fresh kills. In some areas, folklore casts hyenas as grave robbers, soul-stealers, thieves or kidnappers. Folklore from India says that sometime a witch rides on a hyena. African witches are said to use hyena butter to fuel their lamps and possibly as a power component for other preparations. Folklore from Africa and Iran tells of half-human hybrid creatures that are part hyena. In some stories hyenas are lycanthropes or vampires or practice witchcraft.

Hyena-related mythological creatures include:



Game and Story Use

  • With their creepy laugh, bone-snapping bite, and unusual dimorphism, hyena's can make for a memorable wilderness encounter.
  • Hyena's might be the inspiration for a memorable beastmen tribe or other supernatural creature.
    • Let's not forget the gnolls of D&D.
    • Were-hyenas could be scavenging witches (perhaps necromancers) who avoid fights unless they massively outnumber opponents.
  • If the campaign involves a lot of battlefields and extended war, Hyena scavengers might be a common sight.
  • A horrifying laughter in the dark — is it "just" a pack of hyenas, or is there something far worse stalking the savanna under the stars tonight?
  • The shell of the building smells burnt — an actual fire, or hyenas marking territory?
  • Apparently infection by t. gondii can cause hyenas to lose their fear of lions - presumably this would also make them less timid around humans and a greater hazard.
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