Why do spotted hyenas laugh?

The Hyena's Nervous Laughter

Hyenas laugh frequently at mealtime.
Hyenas laugh frequently at mealtime.

If you happen­ to get close to a pack of hyenas dining on a freshly killed carcass, you'll probably hear peals of laughter. But those aren't signs of happiness. Most of the time, a spotted hyena's laugh is in response to agitation or attack [source: Joyce]. When a feeding frenzy ensues, hyenas may claw and nip at each other in an effort to get a mouthful of meat. That aggressive behavior incites the laughterlike outbursts that we associate with the spotted hyena. Laughter is only just one of the spotted hyena's vocalizations. Each has a unique "whoop" that serves as its calling card. Also, researchers determined recently that mother hyenas talk to their cubs with melodic groans [source: Viegas].

Such laughter-inducing dietary competition contradicts the notion of the hyena as a scavenger. If they don't hunt their own food, why would they display such aggression during feeding time? Contrary to popular belief, spotted hyenas scavenge less than a third of their total diet [source: Burton and Burton]. In fact, they're the most abundant large predator on the African continent, beating out lions, leopards and cheetahs [source: Kemper].

Hunting can be dangerous business for spotted hyenas, especially considering that their chief rival is the lion. Hyenas that hunt in groups have a 20 percent greater chance of catching prey, but also have higher likelihood of attracting unwanted attention [source: Michigan State University]. For that reason, the most successful hyenas will hunt alone and then return to the clan to benefit from the protection that the social grouping offers.

Once hyenas capture prey, males are usually the last to eat and the most bullied around the carcass. When males reach sexual maturity at around two years old, they escape their clans in search of a new one. But after they find a potential foster clan, they must work hard to impress the females in order to mate. It can take up to 2 years for females to allow a male into the clan [source: Kemper]. During breeding season, giggles may echo from hyena territory. In that case, however, it isn't a sign of aggression. Just like humans may laugh on a roller coaster ride to express fear and excitement, so the eager spotted hyena lets out a mating-time chuckle.


­Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Burton, Maurice and Burton, Robert. "International Wildlife Encyclopedia." Marshall Cavendish. 2002. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=g2_St32S_5wC
  • Carey, Bjorn. "The Painful Realities of Hyena Sex." LiveScience. April 26, 2006. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://www.livescience.com/animals/060426_hyena_cubs.html
  • ­Joyce, Christopher. "Laughing's No Joke For Spotted Hyenas." National Public Radio. Feb. 13, 2009. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100628612
  • Kemper, Steve. "Who's Laughing Now?" Smithsonian. May 2008. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/hyena.html
  • Michigan State University. "Spotted Hyenas Can Increase Survival Rates By Hunting Alone." ScienceDaily. July 21, 2008. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080716171128.htm
  • Stevens, Jane Ellen. "Hyenas' fatal fighting is nothing to laugh about." BioScience. Vol. 43. No. 4. 1993.
  • Viegas, Jennifer. "Hyenas Baby Talk With Groans." Discovery News. July 7, 2008. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/07/07/hyena-groans.html
  • ­Zimmer, Carl. "Sociable, and Smart." The New York Times. March 4, 2008. (Feb. 25, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/science/04hyen.html