Why are spotted hyena always the bad guys? We can blame Disney, and Hemingway, for a start.
Their heavy build, great hulking shoulders, their loping gait, and their large, blunt-nosed faces do not contribute to an overall cuddly look. Plus, there is that whole hermaphrodite rumour. But many of the nightmarish stories associated with hyena are, in fact, myths. They are not purely scavengers – they are powerful hunters in their own right. They do eat carrion from leftover kills, like most predators, but this habit is essential for the support and maintenance of the ecosystem in which they exist. They form tight-knit family groups, forge impenetrable bonds with one another and are extraordinarily tough. Spotted hyena live in clans of varying size, and each clan is ruled over by a dominant matriarch – the clan females (including any young cubs) are superior to the smaller, more submissive males. Yes, the female spotted hyena has a pseudo-scrotum, which can make it rather difficult to sex her at first glance. This is unusual, but not “creepy,” as some articles like to make out.
“Ugly, though” I hear you say? Absolutely not! Hang out at a spotted hyena den and watch cubs playing with one another – “cute” doesn’t even cover it. Plus, these hyena are extremely intelligent and no, Pliny the Elder was wrong, they do not dig up human graves for fun. The spotted is probably the most maligned for its so-called brutish appearance, and yet it has been discovered to have the largest brain compared with the striped and brown hyena. Scientist Kay Holecamp, of Michigan State University, ran a selection of hyena skulls through a CT scanner and was able to discern that the front section of the spotted hyena brain (used for advanced decision making) is particularly large.
And the giggling? Far from being the hallmark of evil plotting and tyranny (as Walt Disney would have you believe), this unique hyena sound is indicative of excitement, expressed during clan greetings, or when a kill has been made. The other sound associated with this animal, that iconic whoop, is truly a signature of the bush, and arguably one of the greatest sounds to hear from inside your cosy tent at night!
Glickman, Stephen E. 1995. “The Spotted Hyena from Aristotle to the Lion King: Reputation is Everything.” In Social Research, Vol. 62, No. 3, In the Company of Animals (FALL), pp. 501-537. The Johns Hopkins University Press: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40971108
Holecamp, Kay. “Cognition in the Spotted Hyena,” Spotted Hyena Research: http://www.holekamplab.org/cognition.html