Hyenas (from Greek "ὕαινα" - huaina) are the animals of the family Hyaenidae (pronounced /haɪˈɛnɨdiː/ or /haɪˈiːnɨdeɪ/), a feliform suborder of the Carnivora. It is the smallest biological family in the Carnivora (consisting of four species), and one of the smallest in the mammalia. Despite their low diversity, hyenas are unique and vital components to most African and some Asian ecosystems.
Although phylogenetically close to felines and viverrids, hyenas are behaviourally and morphologically similar to canines in several aspects (see Convergent evolution) ; both hyenas and canines are non-arboreal, cursorial hunters which catch prey with their teeth rather than their claws. Both eat their food quickly and may store it, and their calloused feet with large, blunt, non-retractible nails are made for running and making sharp turns. However, the hyenas' grooming, scent marking, defecating habits, mating and parental behaviour are consistent with the behaviour of other feliforms. Although long reputed to be cowardly scavengers, hyenas, especially spotted hyenas, do occasionally hunt for themselves, and have been known to drive off leopards or lionesses from their kills. Hyenas are primarily nocturnal animals, but may venture from their lairs in the early morning hours. With the exception of the highly social spotted hyena, hyenas are generally not gregarious animals, though they may live in family groups and congregate at kills.
Hyenas first arose in Eurasia during the Miocene period from viverrid-like ancestors, and developed into two distinct branches ; the lightly built dog-like hyenas and the robust bone-crushing hyenas. Although the dog-like hyenas thrived 15 million years ago (with one taxon having colonised North America), they died out after a change in climate along with the arrival of canids into Eurasia. Of the dog-like hyena lineage, only the insectivorous aardwolf survived, while the bone-crushing hyenas (whose extant members are the spotted, brown and striped hyena) became the undisputed top scavengers of Eurasia and Africa.
Hyenas feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures they are sympatric with. Hyenas are mostly viewed with fear and contempt, as well as being associated with witchcraft, as their body parts are used as ingredients in traditional medicine. Among the beliefs held by some cultures, hyenas are thought to influence people’s spirits, rob graves, and steal livestock and children.
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