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African Wild Dog vs. Hyena: Their Key Differences & Who Would Win a Fight?

In the vastness of Africa’s savannas and expansive grasslands, a myriad of creatures roam, each with its unique place in the web of life. Among the continent’s most fascinating predators are the African Wild Dog and the Hyena.

These two species, while both carnivorous and essential to maintaining the balance of their ecosystems, represent different evolutionary paths, behaviors, and roles within the African landscape. As we delve into their worlds, we’ll explore not only what sets them apart but also what ties them together in the intricate dance of Africa’s wilderness.

Physical Appearance and Characteristics

African Wild Dog

An African wild dog

Often mistaken for hyenas by those unfamiliar with African fauna, African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) are distinct and striking creatures. These canids stand at a height of about 30 inches at the shoulder and can weigh between 40 to 70 pounds, with males generally being slightly larger than females.

One of the most striking features of the African Wild Dog is its unique coat. No two wild dogs have the same pattern, making each individual uniquely identifiable. The patchwork quilt of yellows, browns, blacks, and whites serves not only as camouflage but also helps in regulating body temperature.


A spotted hyena

Hyenas, members of the Hyaenidae family, are often mischaracterized due to their portrayal in popular culture. These creatures vary in size, with the Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) being the largest, weighing anywhere between 90 to 190 pounds and standing around 35 inches tall at the shoulder.

In terms of appearance, the three main species of hyenas display noticeable differences:

  • Spotted Hyenas (Crocuta crocuta): Recognized by their sandy or yellowish-brown coats dotted with dark spots, they are the most well-known of the hyenas.
  • Striped Hyenas (Hyaena hyaena): As the name suggests, they exhibit vertical black stripes over a lighter body coat. They’re smaller than their spotted cousins, found predominantly in North and East Africa.
  • Brown Hyenas (Parahyaena brunnea): The rarest of the trio, these hyenas boast a long, shaggy dark brown coat with a lighter-colored mane. Primarily found in southern parts of Africa, they are slightly smaller than spotted hyenas but larger than striped ones.

Distribution and Habitat

African Wild Dog

The African Wild Dog, once widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, has seen a significant reduction in its range. Today, they are found in fragmented pockets across southern and East Africa, with the largest populations residing in Botswana, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Their preferred habitats range from open grasslands to woodlands and semi-deserts.

Conservation status is a concern for the African Wild Dog. Classified as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, their numbers have been declining due to habitat fragmentation, human-wildlife conflicts, and diseases like canine distemper. Current estimates put their population at around 6,600 adults in total, with only 1,400 mature individuals capable of reproduction.


Hyenas, more adaptable and widespread than the African Wild Dogs, span various regions based on the species:

  • Spotted Hyenas: Predominantly found in sub-Saharan Africa, they inhabit savannas, grasslands, woodlands, and forest edges.
  • Striped Hyenas: Their range extends from North Africa and the Middle East to India, residing mainly in arid lands, grasslands, and open woodlands.
  • Brown Hyenas: Primarily restricted to the arid regions of southern Africa, they’re mainly found in Namibia, Botswana, and parts of South Africa.

In terms of conservation, while the Spotted Hyena is classified as “Least Concern,” both the Striped and Brown Hyenas are labeled “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List. The primary threats they face are habitat loss and human persecution, especially outside protected areas.

Spotted hyena
Spotted hyena

Hunting Techniques and Diet

African Wild Dog

Renowned for their remarkable teamwork, African Wild Dogs use pack-hunting strategies that exhibit both intelligence and coordination. Using a relay system, they can chase down prey over long distances until the target is exhausted. While they may seem less aggressive compared to other predators, their hunting success rate, ranging from 60-90%, is among the highest in Africa.

Their diet predominantly consists of medium-sized ungulates like impalas and gazelles. However, they also hunt larger prey such as wildebeests, especially when hunting as a pack.


Contrary to popular belief, hyenas aren’t solely scavengers. In fact:

  • Spotted Hyenas: They are adept hunters and are known to take down a wide range of prey, from small mammals to ungulates like zebras and wildebeests. While they do scavenge when the opportunity presents itself, hunting accounts for a significant portion of their food. Their hunting success rate varies but is estimated to be around 30%.
  • Striped and Brown Hyenas: More inclined towards scavenging, they often feed on carrion and the remains of other animals’ kills. They do hunt occasionally, targeting smaller animals and birds.

It’s worth noting that hyenas have incredibly powerful jaws, allowing them to crush bones and digest them, ensuring minimal wastage and maximizing nutrient intake.

Social Structure and Behavior

African Wild Dog

Pack Dynamics, Leadership, and Communication: African Wild Dogs live in packs that typically consist of 2-40 individuals, though larger packs of up to 60 have been observed. Within a pack, there’s a unique democratic approach to decision-making.

For instance, before embarking on a hunt, members communicate with one another using synchronized vocalizations, akin to a “group vote.”Leadership isn’t strictly linear. While there is an alpha male and female, they aren’t the dominating “leaders” as seen in some other species.

Instead, they earn respect due to their roles in hunting and breeding. Communication within the pack is primarily vocal but also incorporates body language, touch, and scent marking.

Two African Wild Dogs walking

Reproductive Behaviors and Pup Rearing: Reproduction is usually restricted to the alpha pair, but occasionally, other members might breed. The female gives birth to a litter ranging from 2 to 20 pups after a gestation period of about 70 days. Pups are born in dens, often abandoned aardvark holes.

The entire pack plays a role in looking after the pups. While the mother nurses them, other members bring regurgitated food to feed both the mother and the young. It’s a communal effort, highlighting the tightly-knit nature of wild dog society.


Clan Dynamics and Matriarchy: Hyenas live in groups known as clans, which can range from a few individuals to over a hundred in the case of spotted hyenas. Their society is matriarchal, meaning females rank higher than males, with the highest-ranking female, the matriarch, at the helm.

In spotted hyena clans, there’s a strict hierarchy. Even the lowest-ranking female is higher than the highest-ranking male. Striped and brown hyenas also exhibit female dominance but live in smaller and less hierarchical groups.

Communication and Vocalizations: Hyenas are often dubbed “laughing” because of their distinct vocalizations. These sounds, especially prevalent in spotted hyenas, can range from whoops, giggles, and yells, to growls. Each sound has a specific purpose, be it to communicate over long distances, signal distress, or establish dominance.

Additionally, hyenas use body language, such as the position of their tails and ears, to communicate mood and intent. Scent marking is another important communication method, especially for establishing territories.

Reproductive Behaviors: Hyena reproduction is complex, especially in spotted hyenas. Females have pseudo-penises, which are elongated clitorises. This unique anatomy means that reproduction and birthing are challenging. After a gestation period of about 110 days (for spotted hyenas) or 90-92 days (for striped and brown hyenas), females give birth through the pseudo-penis.

Mothers are incredibly protective of their cubs. Spotted hyena cubs, in particular, are born with their eyes open and teeth erupted, making them more aggressive. This leads to a competitive dynamic from a young age, especially when vying for milk, which can sometimes even result in siblicide.

Two hyenas in tall grass

Interactions Between African Wild Dogs and Hyenas

Territory Overlaps and Confrontations

Both the African Wild Dog and hyenas have territories that often overlap, leading to occasional confrontations. While African Wild Dogs operate primarily during the day, hyenas are more crepuscular or nocturnal, which minimizes direct conflicts. However, when their paths do cross, especially around a fresh kill or a water source, tensions can escalate.

Spotted hyenas, due to their larger size and pack mentality, often pose a threat to wild dogs. There have been instances where hyenas have ambushed wild dogs, leading to fatalities. Conversely, a large pack of wild dogs can intimidate and chase away a smaller group or solitary hyenas.

Scavenging and Stealing Kills

One of the most significant points of contention between these two predators is food. Spotted hyenas, with their opportunistic nature, are known to scavenge and are particularly adept at stealing kills from other predators, including wild dogs. After a successful hunt, wild dogs eat quickly, aware that hyenas or other predators might be attracted to the scene to steal their hard-earned meal.

On the other hand, if a hyena clan makes a kill and it’s discovered by a sizable pack of wild dogs, the tables can turn. The dogs can harass the hyenas and attempt to snatch the kill, relying on their numbers and coordinated strategies.

Behavioral Adaptations When Encountering Each Other

When African Wild Dogs and hyenas encounter each other, their behaviors adapt to the dynamics of the situation. Wild dogs, recognizing the strength and opportunistic nature of hyenas, have developed strategies to protect their kills and their young.

They post sentries that watch for threats while others feed or rest. Upon spotting hyenas, these sentries alert the pack, allowing them to either prepare for a confrontation or make a strategic retreat. Hyenas, depending on their numbers, assess the situation.

A lone hyena might approach cautiously, looking for an opportunity to steal food without getting into a direct conflict. However, a group of hyenas might be more assertive, using their vocalizations and body language to intimidate or challenge the dogs.

Both species also exhibit a range of vocal communications during these encounters. Wild dogs use high-pitched twittering to communicate excitement or agitation, while hyenas may employ whoops and laughs to rally more members or assert dominance.

African Wild Dog staring

African Wild Dog vs. Hyena: Who Wins In a Fight?

In nature, direct confrontations between apex predators like the African Wild Dog and the Spotted Hyena often come down to a mix of physical attributes, numbers, and environmental circumstances. However, when speculating on a one-on-one duel, several factors come into play:

  • Size and Strength: Spotted hyenas possess a significant advantage in terms of sheer size and strength. A typical adult hyena is substantially larger and heavier than an African Wild Dog. This bulk provides the hyena with a power edge in any direct physical confrontation. Additionally, hyenas have one of the most powerful bite forces among mammals. Their jaws, built for crushing bones, can inflict severe injuries in a fight.
  • Agility and Speed: African Wild Dogs, while smaller, are quicker and more agile. In a confrontation, their swiftness could allow them to dodge attacks and perhaps land some of their own. However, this agility might not be enough to compensate for the hyena’s superior strength in a prolonged battle.
  • Tactics and Strategy: African Wild Dogs excel in group strategies and coordinated attacks. Alone, a wild dog would probably avoid a direct confrontation with a hyena, recognizing the risks. If a pack of wild dogs faced off against a single hyena, the numbers could shift the advantage to the dogs.
  • Nature of the Confrontation: Predators rarely engage in fights to the death unless they feel threatened, cornered, or are defending their young. Both species are intelligent and would weigh the costs of such a confrontation against the potential benefits. An injured hyena or wild dog, regardless of who “wins,” would find it harder to hunt and survive afterward.
  • Conclusion: In a hypothetical one-on-one confrontation, a spotted hyena would likely have the advantage over an African Wild Dog, mainly due to its size, strength, and powerful jaw. However, in nature, such confrontations are complex, often influenced by environmental factors, group dynamics, and individual experiences.

It’s essential to remember that these animals have evolved over millennia to fill specific ecological niches, with survival, not fighting prowess, being the ultimate goal. Direct confrontations risk injury, making avoidance and strategic retreats often more sensible than outright combat.

Frequently Asked Questions

How large can African Wild Dogs and hyenas grow?
  • African Wild Dog: Typically, they weigh between 18 to 36 kg (40-79 lbs) and stand about 30 inches tall at the shoulder.
  • Spotted Hyena: They are considerably larger, weighing between 40 to 86 kg (88-190 lbs), with a height of about 35 inches at the shoulder.
Do African Wild Dogs and hyenas share the same habitat?

Yes, both species can be found in a variety of habitats across sub-Saharan Africa, including grasslands, savannas, and woodlands. Their territories often overlap, leading to interactions between the two species.

Are hyenas and African Wild Dogs related?

No, despite some similarities in their social structures and habits, they belong to different families. African Wild Dogs are canids and are more closely related to wolves and domestic dogs, while hyenas are part of the Hyaenidae family, which is more closely related to mongooses and meerkats.

Why are African Wild Dogs endangered?

The decline in African Wild Dog populations can be attributed to habitat fragmentation, human-wildlife conflicts, and diseases such as canine distemper. Road accidents and retaliatory killings for livestock predation also pose threats to their numbers.

Can hyenas truly “laugh”?

The “laughing” sound produced by hyenas, particularly the spotted hyena, is actually a form of vocal communication. This giggle or laugh is usually a sign of excitement or agitation and doesn’t denote amusement as human laughter does.

How do African Wild Dogs and hyenas communicate within their groups?

Both species use a combination of vocalizations, body language, scent marking, and touch. African Wild Dogs are known for their high-pitched twittering sounds, especially during hunts, while hyenas use a range of vocalizations, including whoops, yells, and the famous “laugh.”

Is it true that only the alpha pair of African Wild Dogs reproduce?

While the alpha pair is primarily responsible for reproduction in the pack, there are occasions when other members might breed. However, the alpha pair’s offspring usually receive priority in terms of care and resources.

Are hyenas effective hunters or just scavengers?

Though hyenas have a reputation as scavengers, especially in popular culture, they are proficient hunters. Spotted hyenas, in particular, can hunt a wide variety of prey and are known to take down larger mammals such as wildebeests.

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