The truth about spotted hyenas

Adélaïde Fouache

Spotted hyenas, also called laughing hyenas, are one of the most misunderstood and underrated species. When you read the title, you might have thought of the hyenas in Disney’sThe Lion King, where they are depicted as villains, followers, and weak idiotics. 

It has been challenging to get people to engage and express interest in hyenas, not only because of the numerous myths and critiques around them, but also because they are not as impressive as the powerful lion or the mighty tiger, for example. We are attracted to things, people and animals that we think are “beautiful”, but like everything and everyone, hyenas have a lot more to offer. 

Hyenas are considered to be the best hunters of the African continent. A research study in the 1970s by zoologist Hans Kruuk, revealed that the hyenas made over 50% of the kills, which then could be stolen by the lions, not the other way around. It does not mean that they will not try to scavenge available food, obviously, but they are much stronger and more dangerous than one might think. Also, compared to lions, hyenas eat the entire carcass of their kills, thanks to a very strong and highly acidic stomach, avoiding the spread of diseases.

When living in packs, hyenas are found to be extremely smart and efficient. There have been studies proving that hyenas are smarter than chimpanzees. However, even though the study was conducted with only a few animals, which can not be used as a generalization of the species, they also found that they surpassed the chimpanzees in regards to social cooperation. Considering they live in packs between 10 and over a hundred members, this should not be too surprising. 

Another interesting fact is that hyenas do not stink…or at least, no more than other wild animals. It has been said that hyenas dig up buried bodies, and the smell would be impregnated on their fur. But, many  experts have discounted that myth, proving that not only is there no proof that they dig up buried bodies, but also that they do not smell worse than lions, tigers, panthers or other big land mammals.

Different from many other carnivores, females are the pack leaders, making them a matriarchal group. This stems from the fact that the testosterone levels are three times higher in the females, which also explains their muscular physique and their aggressiveness compared to the males. Another myth surrounding hyenas is that they are hermaphrodites. This myth exists because to the bare eye it is almost impossible to discern the difference between a male and a female hyena, as the latter possess genitals that look like the males’. However, it is not a penis, but a clitoris which is “enlarged and extended to form an organ of the same size, shape, and position as the male penis” (S.J. Gould, 1981, pp 2). There have been theories that there was an evolution, taking place over centuries, of the female genitals to make it look like a penis so they look stronger, but there has been no proof of such evolution. Other theories, such as the one given by Kruuk, posits that the clitoris’ specific structure exists for the sole purpose of the meeting ceremony, where two hyenas  lift one of their back legs so the other can have access to their most vulnerable part (penis and/or clitoris), and then sniffs and licks it. It is a very important ceremony for this species, as it conveys respect and trust. Another explanation considered is that it is completely accidental and that it is us, humans, that are trying to explain the unexplainable.

Another important trait of the spotted hyenas that was completely misinterpreted in The Lion King is their laugh. As previously stated, their laugh does not convey the same feelings as us humans when we laugh, but it has a different purpose. One of the functions of the laugh is to show the distress of a hyena to other nearby members. Their laugh is also different depending on the pitch, which tells the social status of the hyenas making the sound, as well as its age. It is extremely interesting to know that not only are there several “laughs” or “giggles”, but also that they have meaning and help experts determine the age and social status of each member of a pack. It is also important to note that the “laugh” or “giggle” is specific to the spotted hyenas. Other subspecies of hyenas also have vocalizations, which they use to either recruit more members during a fight or communicate with each other.

Finally, if you would like to learn more about hyenas in general, two Instagram accounts in particular provide a better understanding of the species (and other mammals living in Africa). Kevin Richardson (@lionwhisperersa) and Dean Schneider (@dean.schneider) both work in conservation parks in South Africa, and are in daily contact with animals such as lions, panthers, and hyenas. They have both been using their social influence to demystify hyenas by taking and creating photos and videos with them, explaining their true behaviour in the wild. As an example, Kevin Richardson uploaded video of himself explaining how he got accepted into a hyena clan, where he is in the hierarchy, and what he has learned over the years with them, For example, while playing with a male, Kevin has certain actions to make the hyena understand that he will not be submissive to him. All of these “promotions” about the species help people become more understanding of the true nature of hyenas, which also helps to improve human perception of these misunderstood creatures. 

Sources: Africa Geographic, Hyena myths and realities PDF (Stephan Jay Gould, 1981), Instagram (@lionwhisperersa and @dean.schneider), National Geographic