Why do spotted hyenas laugh?

Spotted hyenas live in socially complex clans. See more ­pictures of African animals.

­The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) that stalks the savanna of eastern Africa isn't one to waste a scrap of food. After a successful kill, hyena packs leave behind little trace of their meal. One of four hyena species, the spotted breed has the strongest jaws in proportion to body size across the entire mammal kingdom [source: Burton and Burton]. In less than half an hour, a group of them can kill a 400-pound (181-kilogram) zebra and gobble it up, bones, fur and all [source: Kemper].

Perhaps because of their fierce jaws, cunning hunting tactics or nocturnal nature, spotted hyenas have nefarious reputations. Certain tribes in eastern Africa believe hyenas are owned and ridden by witches. Any American child with a penchant for Disney movies cringed in fear when the menacing pack circled beloved Simba on the animated African plain. Like a wolf's howl in the western United States, a hyena's laugh piercing the air could send a shiver up the hardiest safari guide's spine.

Though their dental might is a terrifying prospect, spotted hyenas aren't mindless scavengers. Recent research has revealed that the carnivores live in surprisingly complex clans of 60 to 90 individuals. Moreover, the frontal cortex of their brains, thought to regulate social intelligence, is the largest of the other three species: brown, striped and aardwolf [source: Zimmer].

­A dominant female rules the roost, and a strict hierarchy descends from there with males at the bottom. ­Female alpha hyenas can pass along their dominance in the womb. A surge of testosterone and other hormones in utero causes an alpha's cubs to be more aggressive than those of subordinates. Even before cubs are born, things become cutthroat. D­ue to the narrow shape of the female hyena's uterus, 60 percent of cubs die during birth [source: Kemper]. From there, litters of more than two cubs will result in a fight for milk since most females have only two nipples [source: Kemper].

Brawling over food doesn't end once cubs can stand on their own four feet. Battling for a meal can lead to high hyena mortality rates and elicit the spotted species' telltale cackle that can be heard up to 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) away.