Lions and hyenas inhabit the same geographic ranges in Africa and depend on the same prey as food. This competition fuels a relationship characterized by animosity. When the animals cross each others’ paths they react with hostility, sometimes without apparent reason. Observers have noted occasions where male lions seem to take pleasure in harassing or killing hyenas.
During the Pleistocene age, more than 12,000 years ago, both lions and hyenas lived throughout central and western Europe -- and evidence discovered by archaeologists reveals they didn’t get along then, either. Lion bones dating back to that era have been found in prehistoric hyena dens in central Europe -- bones that bear the characteristic bite marks of a spotted hyena. Scientists speculate the lions may have been killed in fights with hyenas over prey. Similar lion remains have been found in present-day hyena dens in Africa.
The smaller hyena’s ragged appearance compared to the regal air of the lion means hyenas are often seen and portrayed in a negative light while lions are admired and respected. Although hyenas have a reputation as scavengers and thieves, they are active and dangerous predators in their own right, and it's often more likely that a lion will steal a hyena’s prey than the other way around. Both species are social predators who engage in cooperative hunting as well as scavenging, but Africans have long considered hyenas as harbingers of evil.
Because lions and hyenas both consume the same prey, they are each others’ most common competitors. Lions are three to four times larger than hyenas and kill larger animals. A group of hyenas, however, can often use teamwork to intimidate a lion away from its kill. Both lions and hyenas frequently steal from each other. Lions have learned to recognize the feeding calls of hyenas after a recent kill. They follow the calls to the source and chase the hyenas from their prey. Although it would seem abundant prey would lessen the hostility between lions and hyenas, the opposite has been observed.
Although the two species share the same geographic range, both lions and hyenas are territorial and extremely aggressive toward one another. Lions have been known to kill hyena young, and a lion entering hyena territory is dealt with swiftly and aggressively by the individuals guarding the den. Territorial disputes are frequent, and observers in Ethiopia observed a conflict of war-like proportions in April 1999. At the end of two weeks of intense fighting, six lions and 35 hyenas were dead.
Anup Shah/Photodisc/Getty Images
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.