Although often considered scavengers, Spotted hyenas are efficient and flexible hunters. They prefer prey within a body mass range of 56–182 kg (with a mode of 102 kg), a dietary niche breadth similar, but not identical, to that of the Lion. In Kruger N. P., the most important prey items are the Wildbeast Connochaetes taurinus, African Buffalo Syncerus caffer, Plains Zebra Equus quagga, Greater Kudu Tragelaphus strepsiceros, and Impala Aepyceros melampus; preferred prey are all resident herbivores, namely the Impala, Greater Kudu, and Common Warthog Phacochoerus africanus .
In the Namib Desert, Gemsboks Oryx gazella made up more than 80% of the diet and in Etosha N. P. Springboks were most commonly hunted. In the Kalahari, the principal prey is Gemsboks (the most common resident herbivore), Common Wildebeests, and Springboks, followed by Common Eland Tragelaphus oryx and Hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus calves . In Chobe, they principally hunt migratory Plains Zebras and resident Impalas.
In the Serengeti ecosystem and the Ngorongoro Crater, Spotted Hyaenas primarily hunt Common Wildebeests, Thomson’s Gazelles Eudorcas thomsonii and Plains Zebras. In its northern extension in the Masai Mara, they feed mainly on Topis Damaliscus lunatus and Thomson’s Gazelles when migratory species are absent. Upon the arrival of the migratory herds from the Serengeti N. P., they switched to feeding on Common Wildebeests for about three months, until the migratory animals return to the Serengeti N. P.
In the Aberdare Mts (Kenya) the dominant prey items are Bushbucks Tragelaphus scriptus, Sunis Nesotragus moschatus and African Buffalo. The diet of Spotted Hyaenas in West and Central Africa is less well known. In Niokolo-Koba N. P., Senegal, they feed mostly on large and medium-sized ungulates, with African Buffalo the most frequently consumed prey species; Hartebeests and Common Warthogs were also eaten more often than expected. In contrast, in Faro N. P., N Cameroon, mainly medium-sized prey were taken, with the main prey being Buffon’s Kobs Kobus kob, the most abundant prey species in the area.
Spotted Hyaenas are opportunistic, occasionally taking larger prey such as Giraffes Giraffa camelopardalis, juveniles of Common Hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, Savanna Elephants Loxodonta africana and White Rhinoceroses Ceratotherium simum. They also consume a wide range of small mammal prey, including small carnivores and rodents up to the size of springhares Pedetes spp., as well as other vertebrate prey (such as birds, fish, reptiles), insects, crabs, snails, Ostrich Struthio camelus eggs, fruits and the feces of herbivores, carnivores and omnivores.
Despite being a highly social carnivore that may live in large groups, individuals hunt mostly on their own or in small groups, although one case of mass killings of Thomson’s Gazelles by a group of 19 was recorded in East Africa. Prey is detected by sight, hearing, and odor, and carrion by smell, the noise of other carnivores feeding, or observing vultures descending on a carcass.
Adult solitary Spotted Hyaenas of around 5–6 years of age can be very efficient hunters, and, in the Masai Mara, are responsible for over 75% of hunting attempts on Common Wildebeest and Topi.
Spotted Hyaenas are active mostly at night, dawn and dusk, but can forage at any time during the day. During hunts, prey may be chased over several kilometers, the longest recorded chase was 24 km in pursuit of a Common Eland at speeds of up to 60 km/h. Spotted Hyaenas have been observed to drown prey, such as Southern Lechwe Kobus leche.
Average adult daily food consumption is estimated at 2.0–4.0 kg/ day. An adult Spotted Hyaena can consume approximately 18 kg in one meal, equal to up to one-third of adult body mass. They are rapid feeders, an adaptation to strong feeding competition with conspecifics and Lions.
Spotted Hyaenas may travel long distances (30–80 km) in search of prey or water. In Etosha N. P., migratory movements of main prey species (Springbok, Plains Zebra, Common Wildebeest) to the north-west at the start of the wet season results in a considerable decline in prey density. In response, clans in areas of low prey density follow the migratory herds, thus shifting their activities to the wet season range of the migratory herbivores.
In contrast, Spotted Hyenas in Serengeti N. P. leave their clan territory on frequent short-term, long-distance (80–140 km return distance) foraging trips (termed commuting trips) to areas containing high densities of migratory herbivores. Low-ranking group members commute more often than socially dominant members. These trips last on average three days for lactating and 9–10 days for non-lactating. Some 46–62% of the year is spent foraging by commuting between the clan’s territory and herds of migratory prey.
Animals in transit through an area are usually ignored, whereas commuters at food resources are attacked if they fail to submit to residents. The Spotted Hyaena is an efficient scavenger of carrion, including the killing of other Spotted Hyaenas and other carnivores like Lions.
Spotted Hyaenas obtained most of their annual intake from hunting rather than scavenging. It is also an effective kleptoparasite on other carnivores. The proportion of its diet derived from or lost to other predators varies between ecosystems. Lions usually displace Spotted Hyaenas at kills, unless Spotted Hyaena group size is large and male Lions are absent.
In some areas, Spotted Hyenas can kill domestic livestock, domestic cats, domestic dogs, and people. In some areas, spotted hyenas were used or relied upon to dispose of human corpses. Assemblages of bones are often found at Spotted Hyaena communal dens where all clan offspring are placed, although not to the same degree as in the Brown Hyaena or the Striped Hyaena, because Spotted Hyaenas infrequently carry food back to their young. A variety of items, mostly long bones or skulls of medium- to large-sized ungulates, have been found in dens; bone assemblages tend to reflect the ungulate fauna in an area.