By Jean Anselmi
There are a few animals that make laughing sounds. But while the kookaburra’s laughter is seen as merry, the hyena’s laugh is generally portrayed as manic and evil. Consider the way Disney portrays hyenas – from the imbecilic, dirty, and ultimately weak characters in the Lion King, to the cheating giggling football player in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the zoo hyena laughing at Tramp’s humiliation in Lady and the Tramp.
It’s not just the cinematic world portraying hyenas as vicious and unclean. In many Arabic and African cultures there are legends about werehyenas (like werewolves) who eat children, drink blood, and commit other atrocities. So why do we have such an unkind attitude towards hyenas?
Only the spotted hyena makes the laughing sound and it usually conveys social anxiety and uncertainty. Perhaps we can hear that edge?
Part of the reason is that we tend not to like scavengers. In fact, of the four extant species of hyena, the aardwolf is an insectivore, and the spotted hyena is a versatile and adept hunter who kills most of the food they consume. They have a higher success rate in hunting than lions and some studies suggest that lions scavenge more often from a spotted hyena kill than the other way around. Unfortunately, most human exposure to hyenas comes during periods of food scarcity, when they will be scavenging human waste or hunting farming stock.
It may be that hyenas are commonly vilified because humans feel more comfortable when animals fit clearly into categories.
The hyena is an unusual looking creature. Sir Walter Raleigh thought hyenas were an unnatural hybrid offspring of dogs and cats. In fact, hyenas are most closely associated in evolutionary history with cats. The reason they look quite like dogs is due to convergent evolution which occurs when different species living in similar environments are naturally selected for similar traits.
None of the above take into account how amazing hyenas are. Hyenas have incredible strong jaws and sharp teeth allowing them to eat bone. This means that after another animal has extracted all the nutrients they can from a kill, a hyena can crack the bones and reach the nutrient rich marrow. A spotted hyena can chew through the skull of an elephant. Their ability to eat bones also results in a lot of important minerals being returned to the soil through their white faeces. In Zulu, the name for hyena, impisi, means the one who makes things clean or orderly.
Often portrayed as stupid, hyenas have a high intelligence and have demonstrated a collective group problem solving ability exceeding that of chimpanzees. Spotted hyena mostly live in smaller groups but come together from time to time in a larger clan that may include more than 100 animals. Society is matriarchal, which is unique in large carnivores, and the most socially dominant female determines the complex ranking within the entire clan.
One of the most extraordinary things about hyena is their reproductive organs. Females have a clitoris that is around the same size as the male penis – around 18 cm long. Not only do they urinate, have sex, and give birth through this organ, but when females greet each other, they lick each other’s clitoris. Having sex is a challenge and males have been observed ‘practising’ for up to two months to enable full penetration.
Humans have a complex relationship with hyenas. There is evidence that Neanderthals lived closely with hyenas, perhaps keeping them as hunting pets. Human hunting, along with environmental change, have resulted in all hyena species, excluding the insectivorous aardwolf, being listed as near threatened.
It is hard to find conservation funding for less attractive animals – compare likely support for a panda to a hyena – but these animals are important to our ecosystem, and we may need to start paying attention. Perhaps Disney could do a reputation rehabilitation with a cute neanderthal kid and their cuddly sidekick hyena?