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What is a Hyena?

The spotted hyena is the most famous representative of the family Hyaenidae.
Hyenas are native to Africa and Asia, and may live alone or in large groups.
The laughing hyena is native to sub-Saharan Africa.
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  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2014
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A hyena is an animal in the family Hyaenidae, native to Africa and Asia. The most famous representative of this family is probably the spotted hyena, also known as the laughing hyena, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa. Animals in the Hyaenidae family at one point extended as far as North America, with a great deal of diversity between species, but their range and diversity have greatly declined since their heyday over one million years ago, in part due to competition from canids.

Hyenas have a very canine appearance, despite the fact that they are actually more closely related to cats. They have distinctive short rear limbs which give their bodies a sloping appearance, and very strong jaws which can be used to crack open large bones or to grip the throats of prey. Hyena hair is coarse and sandy to brown in color, with many species having stripes or spots for camouflage, and some having ruffs of thicker hair around their necks.

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These animals may live alone or in large groups of related individuals. Hyena society is matriarchal in nature, with female hyenas being particularly famous for their unusually enlarged and protruding urogenital tracts, which cause them to resemble males superficially. There is very little sexual dimorphism in hyenas, and it can be difficult to tell males and females apart from a distance unless one is observing a group of the animals over a prolonged period of time, which offers opportunities to see males and females behave differently.

Most hyenas are scavengers, and they may compete for fresh kills with other carnivores in their habitat, including lions, in addition to eating the carrion they find. Like other scavengers, hyenas have a very high tolerance for spoiled food, and a very diverse diet which allows the animals to adapt to available food sources. Hyenas will also bring down live prey, working cooperatively as a group to select a target. They have also been known to attack humans and carry off young children.

Historically, hyenas have been viewed with some suspicion. The distinctive maniacal laughter of the spotted hyena is quite eerie and was very unsettling for many Europeans when they first encountered the animals, and some people associated hyenas with ill fortune or witchcraft because they raided graves for food. Other myths suggested that the animals could imitate human voices to lure people away from the safety of a campfire, marking targets for death by calling their names.

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Post 10

@DentalFloss- I read once that lions and hyenas actually compete a lot in the wild- not just for food, as the article suggests, but for territory, and hyenas might even attack lions outright. There are some really interesting documentaries on this.

It makes The Lion King look even more romanticized, but it does sort of explain why, in that movie, the hyenas hated Mufasa so much.

DentalFloss
Post 9

@Agni3- I love The Lion King too, though I haven't seen it onstage. I too remembered the hyenas even then, when it came out. They were creepy to me when I was a child, but when I see it or hear it now, I think they're really great characters, and very funny.

What I wonder though is whether or not hyenas would be able to avoid lions that way, or if the lions would just eat them.

manykitties2
Post 8

@Domido - Telling someone that they are laughing like a hyena is quite the insult and though it is a pretty common phrase, I think it is a bit cliché now. Basically it means that your laughter is grating and sounds either maniacal or crazy.

I once had a coworker and a lot of people in the office felt that she laughed like a hyena. She was always off cackling to herself after she had been talking on the phone and we used to get a big kick out of hearing her laugh. If you ever have a chance to listen to a hyena laughing you will soon realize how insane they sound.

letshearit
Post 7

Hyenas always seem like a bit of a fallback animal in cartoons when they need an evil character. They way the laugh, move and interact with other animals really makes them seem like a good fit for the animal kingdoms nastiest animal title.

I visited a zoo once and watched the hyenas for a while and found it a bit disturbing how they seemed to slink around. I can honestly see how they are related to cats when you start looking at the way they move. Hyenas seem to be an odd mix of feline grace and the more canine appearance.

lighth0se33
Post 6

@Domido - Have you ever listened to a recording of hyena laughter? You can find various ones online, and they are very creepy.

While one that I listened to sounded more like the grieving laughter that accompanies sobs, another sounded just like a mad scientist. It could also be compared to a drunken lady laughing at herself for putting up with a cheating husband for years. These are strange comparisons, I know, but nothing is stranger than hyena laughter.

Mixed in with the laughing is moaning. Some clan members moan in the background while others sound out with a crazy“ha-ha-ha.” I can see how it would be very distracting and confusing to prey.

StarJo
Post 5

It’s amazing what all I learn from my teenager’s textbooks. I have always been afraid of and fascinated by hyenas, and just recently, I was reading about brown hyenas and their behavior. I’m sure I enjoy her textbooks more than she does.

I read that brown hyenas do not laugh like spotted hyenas do. They make a lot of noise at dusk, but this noise comes in the form of growling, yowling, whining, and snarling while arguing over food.

Other than animal carcasses, brown hyenas also eat insects like locusts, termites, and beetles, as well as fruit and ostrich eggs. When they are unable to find large carcasses, they will kill and eat small animals like lizards, poultry, and rodents.

I know that since I live in the United States, I don’t have a rational reason to fear a hyena attack. I am still fascinated at a distance with their eerie, ugly appearance and strange noises, though.

OeKc05
Post 4

Though I hate to watch predators take down prey, I do like to watch Discovery Channel programs about animals up until they reach feeding time. Just last week, I watched as much as I could bear about hyenas.

Though they scavenge a lot, they are also very skilled and intelligent when hunting. Often, they get one hyena to distract a herd of animals while the other hyenas choose a weak or old herd member to catch and run the others off. I listened to this part, but I switched it off when they were about to take down the weakling.

What struck me as amazing was that hyenas live together in such large numbers. A clan can have as many as 80 hyenas in it.

orangey03
Post 3

My family hosted an African exchange student while I was in high school. She had a terrible true story involving a hyena.

She and her little sister had been outside playing when they heard what she described as witch laughter. She said she still remembers the chill that ran up her spine at the sound of it.

Mesmerized or paralyzed, they stood listening for a moment. Suddenly, the hyena jumped from the tall grass and grabbed the girl’s three-year-old sister. It dashed off into the wilderness so fast that by the time the girl told her parents, they were unable to find it. They never saw her again.

Domido
Post 2

I have always wondered why people sometimes make the comparison, “She was yeehawing like a laughing hyena,” or some similar something. What in the world does that mean?

I find it hard to believe that hyenas actually ever laugh and would think that they are in reality probably very aggressive.

At least, they look aggressive on the Discovery Channel.

Really, there doesn’t seem to be a single, solitary humorous thing about them. So what is with that crazy saying?

Agni3
Post 1

I have, of course, seen the Disney movie “Lion King” about a million times, and I’ve also seen the Broadway performance. I’ve got to say, that in both artistic venues my favorite characters of all are the hyenas! And of them, I think that Ed the hyena is the most awesome!

This cartoon came out when my sisters and I were girls, and we were hooked on it. We still have little sayings that we quote at each other from it, but the most memorable is when one of us does something completely stupid. The rest of us will refer to that moment of stupid as an ‘Ed’ moment.

We never would have had an ‘Ed’ moment without that incredibly dumb hyena!

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