Although often seen as weaker scavengers compared to lions, hyenas sometimes make a meal of a lion now and then. Whether scavenging a lion carcass or actively hunting a solitary lion or lion cub, the hungry hyena is a bone-crushing force with which to be reckoned.
How is it possible for a hyena to take on a lion? We will look at the answer to this question and more answering questions such as:
- How does a hyena manage to kill a lion?
- How often do hyenas take on lions?
- Why would a hyena take on a lion?
The Spotted Hyena
There are four living hyena species – the spotted hyena, the brown hyena, the striped hyena, and the aardwolf. The spotted hyena is the more formidable of the hyena species and is the hyena that most often clashes with the lion.
The spotted hyena is between 2.3 and 3 feet tall at the shoulder, weighs up to 140lbs, and can run up to forty miles an hour. The more aggressive hyena species, the spotted hyena, can be found in great numbers throughout Africa and is known to hunt alone, in small groups, and large hunting parties.
The African Lion
The African lion stands at 3.9 feet tall at the shoulder, weighs as much as 420lbs, and can run up to fifty miles per hour. Even though the female African lioness does the hunting for pride, the male African lion is still – unsurprisingly – the more aggressive sex.
The male African lion will defend an extended range of territory against other male lions and interlopers, especially when females in the pride are receptive to breeding.
The female African lionesses will defend a smaller, central home range of territory, care for the cubs, and kill and bring home prey for the pride (although the male of the lion pride is capable of hunting for prey items as well.)
How Does a Hyena Manage to Kill a Lion?
The physiological difference between the spotted hyena and the lion is dramatic, so how does the smaller hyena take on the massive “King of the Jungle”?
Hyenas are opportunistic, strategic hunters who know when they are outnumbered and unlikely to win a fight. This intelligence is why the hyena or hyena pack is precise when selecting a lion to bring down.
Hyenas will not attack a strong and healthy lion or a lion under the protection of the pride.
Hyena packs strategically separate a lion from the pride if there is a chance of bringing it down without becoming a target of the rest of the pride.
Hyenas will take down cubs, females, older, weaker, sicker lions, or lions that have somehow been separated from the pride because there is a higher chance of success in the kill.
Hyenas kill lions as a pack because of the significant size difference and the high likelihood of injury to the hyena during the kill. Depending on the size and health of the lion or lioness, it can take between ten and twenty hyenas to bring down a lion or lioness.
Once a lion is separated from the pride by the hyenas or due to illness, ostracism, or being driven out, the hyena pack will circle the isolated lion and begin biting and attacking it from behind.
Once they succeed in bringing down the lion, the hyena pack will go straight for the soft belly and try to tear it open. Once the lion’s belly is torn open and the internal organs spilled, there is no chance for the lion to recover, and it quickly becomes a meal.
When eating prey, the hyena clan eats large prey alive, attacking the soft areas of the body, first crippling the animal. When tackling small prey items like rabbits, birds, birds’ eggs, and foxes, hyenas rarely hunt in groups, and a single hyena takes a prey item in its mouth and shakes it to kill it.
How Often Do Hyenas Take On Lions?
It is rare for hyenas to take on lions simply because lions are so much more extensive (almost four times larger than hyenas,) and there is a real threat of life-ending injury to the hyena. Even the aggressive spotted hyena species – known for being active and aggressive hunters, have a healthy respect for the lion as the “King of the Savannah.”
Why Would a Hyena Take on a Lion?
Hyenas are exceptionally intelligent, and a hyena or hyena clan will attack a lion only when there is a good chance of a kill and little injury. For example –
- A hyena clan will attack a solitary lion because there is less chance of injury from the pride.
- A hyena clan will attack a young cub, injured lion, or elderly lion because there is an easier chance of a kill that yields plentiful meat.
- A hyena may attack, kill, and eat lion cubs to eliminate competition for food, as lions and hyenas target similar prey.
- A hyena may attack a lion in a final effort when facing starvation.
- A hyena or hyena clan will also take on a lion if their territory or lions threaten their young.
Do Lions Eat Hyenas?
Lions do not usually eat hyenas unless in dire circumstances. As an apex predator, the lion has the rule of the savannah and can choose from any animal on the food chain.
While a hyena is a source of protein in a life-or-death situation, the meat of herbivores is much more nutritious and nutrient-rich – not to mention plentiful on the savannah. Plus, herbivorous prey is much easier for the lions to bring down than a hyena traveling in a pack.
Conclusion / Summary
Although often portrayed as a cowardly scavenger, the spotted hyena is an active hunter that will target a vulnerable lion if there is a good chance of success in the kill. Not only do lions provide a good supply of meat for hyenas, but eliminating one lion reduces competition for prey.