Breaking The Hyena Myth
Centuries of literature and traditional folklore—often featuring stories of witchcraft, grave-digging, and sexual deviance—have cemented a deep-rooted disgust for the hyena in the human psyche.
Aristotle described the hyena as “exceedingly fond of putrefied flesh.” Hemingway labeled the animal a “hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead.” And Roosevelt called it a “singular mixture of abject cowardice and the utmost ferocity,” according to a 1995 study on the hyena’s status throughout history.
With such an unsavory history, it’s no surprise pop culture depictions of hyenas have followed suit. The movie, The Lion King, again portrays a trio of spotted hyenas as evil sidekicks of the villain Scar.
Mostly, it’s fear and lack of understanding of these hyenas, coupled with their unusual appearance and scavenging tendencies, that have spawned so many negative stereotypes. But today, with the help of National Geographic, it’s time to set the record straight.
Myth 1: Hyenas are stupid.
The Lion King’s hyena trio, Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed, lurk in the shadows of the elephant graveyard. Ed is dim-witted, with unfocused eyes and a floppy tongue, and he gnaws on his own flesh. Under Scar’s leadership, the hyenas contribute to the collapse of the entire Pride Rock ecosystem.
In reality, these apex predators are critical to controlling prey populations and preventing the spread of disease, particularly by eating every last bit of a carcass.
Spotted and brown hyenas live in tight-knit clans that are led by an alpha—often a female—and include lower-ranking females, males, and young. Clan size depends mostly on prey availability, ranging from 10 members in some desert-dwelling clans to around 120 animals. Such large and complicated groups make spotted hyenas “the most socially complex carnivores in the world. You couldn’t maintain all these social bonds if you weren’t intelligent.
Myth 2: Hyenas laugh.
Vocalizations keep hyena societies intact: Their classic whoop serves to recruit more hyenas during a fight with lions, advertise a male’s fitness, or simply communicate with other hyenas about location. Then there’s the oft-misunderstood laugh, or giggle, which is unique to the spotted hyena.
For centuries, authors have described this sound as deceitful or mischievous. “I will laugh like a hyena, and that when thou art inclined to sleep,” Shakespeare writes in As You Like It. In truth, it’s not a happy noise: A lower-ranking animal makes this laughing-like sound when it’s upset or stressed.
Myth 3: Hyenas are only scavengers.
As the story line goes, “the lion is the king, and the hyena is a skulking, nasty, dirty thing because it’s a scavenger”. This myth refuses to die, even with the evidence to the contrary staring everyone in the face.
The truth? Hyenas are excellent hunters whose spoils are more likely to be stolen by lions than the other way around. In the Serengeti in the 1970s, zoologist Hans Kruuk found that when spotted hyenas and lion share a carcass, hyenas were responsible for the kill 53 percent of the time.
Spotted hyenas can take down buffalo and baby elephants, hunting alone or in groups—a flexibility that gives them an advantage over their competitors.
That’s not to say that hyenas will ignore available food, any self-respecting carnivore would scavenge if given the opportunity. And they’re exceptional at it. Sledgehammer-like jaws shatter bones, while highly acidic stomachs break down the shards.
Myth 4: Hyenas are weak.
In the meager deserts of southern Namibia, brown hyenas maintain home ranges of up to 1,150 square miles. A hyena will walk an average of 15 miles a night in search of a meal.
Such endurance is due in part to their streamlined body shape. Stubby hind legs increase energy efficiency, allowing the animals to lope easily across the ground. Hyena also have big, strong lungs and hearts as well as wide nostrils that facilitate oxygen exchange.
Myth 5: Hyenas stink.
The Kaguru people of Tanzania believe hyenas dig up the graves of the dead, which, according to their beliefs, is why they smell bad. In reality, hyenas actually don’t have much of a smell. You want to talk about a stinky animal, the African wild dog rolls in its own poop.
Hyenas do produce a substance from their anal gland that scientists have nicknamed “hyena butter”—it’s a paste used to mark their territories and smells like mulch.
Myth 6: Hyenas are hermaphrodites.
Female hyenas are stellar mothers, investing more time in their cubs than most carnivores. Not only do they nurse cubs on extremely calcium-rich milk for two years, moms wrestle and play with their offspring for hours at a time—another sophisticated, primate-like behavior.
However, spotted hyena females are often mistaken for males. They have genitals that resemble males’. When two hyenas—male or female—greet, the higher-ranking animal will sniff the lower-ranking animal’s genitals to reinforce bonds and lower stress levels. Females also urinate, mate, and give birth through this pseudopenis.
It’s this physical trait that has particularly harmed the hyena’s public persona. In Physiologus, a Christian text from the second century A.D., the hyena is said to alternate between male and female, and thus “is unclean because it has two natures,” according to the 1995 study.
Truth: Hyenas are vulnerable to extinction.
Because of habitat loss and widespread hunting, striped and brown hyenas are classified as near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the body that sets the conservation status of species.