The Misunderstood Hyena
Few animals are more maligned than the hyena. And admittedly, they are not exactly endearing creatures. The beady eyes, sloping back, and stolid manner all suggest something scruffy and villainous to many human observers. Besides, the hyena laughs and giggles like a maniac. Its eerie whoop often pierces the quiet of the African night. All these qualities combined may well be enough to make you shudder!
But hyenas have received more than their fair share of negative publicity. So let’s set the record straight on a few counts. First of all, the hyena is often thought of as a dog of some sort. It is nothing of the kind. A distinct species, its resemblance to the dog is purely superficial.
Hyenas are also commonly thought of as cowards. But cowards would hardly make effective hunters. Hunters? Yes, hyenas are not simply scavengers. Having exceptionally powerful shoulders and the strongest jaws of all the African carnivores, they are quite efficient at hunting their own prey—even animals as large as the buffalo. In fact, they are ranked among the great predators of Africa.
While studying southern Africa’s carnivores, author Chris McBride often saw hyenas actually chasing lionesses away from their own prey as they were eating it. Only the male lion could resist the onslaught of a group of hyenas. If the hyena were really a coward, would it take on such a formidable foe? Not likely.
Why Does It Laugh?
The hyena’s manic giggle may sound a bit unpleasant to you. But he is merely communicating with his fellow clan members. “Each spotted hyaena has its own whoop which can be recognised by other hyaenas,” explains one South African expert, Dr. G. Mills. In this way, widely scattered clan members let one another know where they are so that they can regroup quickly if the need arises, such as if they have to defend their territory or form a hunting party. Their excitement at making a kill or discovering carrion is voiced in high-pitched “giggles.”
But not all hyenas laugh. The brown hyena of southern Africa is smaller and quieter than the more common spotted hyena and prefers to forage alone instead of in groups. He relies more on communication by scent.
Each individual transfers its distinct scent to grass stalks, bushes, or rocks by secreting pastes from specialized anal pouches. The hyena’s sense of smell is so acute that it can apparently deduce from the paste the sex, social status, and even the identity of fellow clan members.
Do you dislike the hyena? Granted, it is not cuddly or appealing. But not all animals are. Many creatures impress us with other qualities, such as power and cunning. In that light, there is much about the hyena to impress and fascinate us.