Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Eliska from Ruckersville, VA. Eliska Wonders, “why do hyenas laugh? ” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Eliska!
We were trekking across the Wonderopolis savanna the other day when we discovered an oasis in the midst of the parched land. As we enjoyed a cool drink from the watering hole, we overheard an interesting conversation between a couple of hyenas and a young zebra:
Hyena 1: Hey Sal! Get a load of this guy. Looks like he's wearing pajamas!
Zebra: Stop your cackling, you two! My stripes help me blend in.
Hyena 2: Ha! Good one, Joe!
Zebra: *sigh* Just what I needed…a couple of wise guys…
So what's the deal with hyenas? Why are they known for laughing? What's so funny? After all, we humans even have a phrase we use to describe someone cackling: "laughing like a hyena."
Scientists who have studied hyenas will tell you that the unique sounds they make are actually no laughing matter. Hyenas do indeed make loud barking noises that sound like cackling laughter, but it's not because they're amused by anything.
Instead, a hyena's "laughter" is actually a form of communication used to convey frustration, excitement, or fear. Most often, you'll hear this unique vocalization during a hunt or when the animals are feeding on prey as a group.
What sounds like maniacal giggling to humans lets other hyenas know that one of the other members of their pack has either made a kill or been attacked. When sharing a fresh kill, the sound might also indicate frustration on the part of a younger animal that hasn't gotten its fair share yet. Likewise, the animal in possession of the meat might also "laugh" as a warning to others that it's not ready to share yet.
There are several species of hyenas, and they all have a variety of unique vocalizations. Only one of these species, however — the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) — makes the laughing sound that has become synonymous with hyenas, in general.
Researchers have also learned that the pitch of a hyena's "laugh" usually varies dependent upon its social status. Hyena packs are matrilineal, which means that females are dominant and lead the pack. There's intense competition for food within a pack, and the subordinate animals — often male — tend to "laugh" more frequently with a higher pitch.