Hyaenas

28 February 2010 | Fact sheet

Why do hyaenas 'laugh'? Are they hermaphrodites? Are they related to dogs? Why should we care about them?

1. Why do hyaenas 'laugh'?

Spotted hyaenas often make a sound which is very similar to high-pitched, hysterical human giggling. However, when a hyaena giggles, this actually means it is quite nervous about something, and not that it thinks something is amusing. A spotted hyaena most often giggles in response to aggression directed at it by another individual, or when the 'laughing' animal has some food that another hyaena wants. Thus the human analogy to a hyaena giggling might be a worried person saying “Please leave me alone!”.

2. Are spotted hyaenas hermaphrodites?

Hermaphrodites are animals that are simultaneously both male and female. There are many creatures in the animal kingdom that are true hermaphrodites, including some fish and many snails and worms, but spotted hyaenas are definitely not among them. The reason why the spotted hyaena has been considered a hermaphrodite in many cultures is that the secondary sexual organs appear to be very similar in males and females: although a female spotted hyaena has a uterus and ovaries internally, externally she does in fact appear to have 'masculinized' genitalia.

3. Are Hyaenas related to dogs? Would they make good pets?

Although hyaenas look rather dog-like, they are more closely related to cats than to dogs, and their closest living relatives are mongooses and the fossa, a mongoose-like carnivore found only in Madagascar. Although some people in Africa and Asia find very young hyaenas in nature and raise them as pets, as adults, these animals generally appear to be extremely unhappy as 'domestic companions'. Spotted hyaenas need several years of practice to become proficient hunters, and as they are deprived of this practice when raised as pets, it is a death sentence for a captive-reared hyaena to be released into the wild. Another reason why pet hyaenas cannot be released is that they might transfer new diseases from captive environments into the wild.

4. Why should we conserve hyaenas?

Because of their unique attributes, hyaenas can teach us many important lessons, helping us to understand the broader principles governing the development of mammals. Among other features, hyaenas appear to be able to withstand diseases that kill many other animals, including rabies. Studying hyaenas may help us understand their immune system which we can then use to enhance our own health. Hyaenas also perform valuable services in the ecosystems they inhabit and can offer us an indicator of ecosystem health: they can survive under conditions no other large carnivore can tolerate, their disappearance from an ecosystem indicates that the habitat has become very severely degraded.

5. Do hyaenas attack and kill livestock?

Spotted hyaenas sometimes attack and kill livestock in rural parts of Africa, mainly targetting sheep and goats, but also occasionally attacking cattle, camels or donkeys. Brown and striped hyaenas feed mainly on carrion, rodents, hares, insects and fruits so they very seldom attack livestock.

Source and more information: IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group