12 Incredible Hyena Facts

Hyena Family

Ondrej Prosicky / Getty Images

Hyenas are the most common carnivores in Africa. They range all the way from North Africa to the very southern tip of the continent and live mainly in dry, scrubby savannas and deserts. There are four species of hyenas: brown, spotted, striped, and the smaller and lesser-known aardwolf. While spotted hyenas are the largest species, all hyenas have large heads, powerful jaws, and long front legs.

Hyenas are most famous for their "laugh," depicted in various forms of media. Yet while some do indeed laugh, they are unlikely to join villainous cartoon characters in cackling maniacally. Laughter aside, there's much more to know about these intriguing and often-maligned mammals. From how hyenas stay cool to their boldness when faced with hungry lions, read through our list of fascinating hyena facts.

1. Hyenas Look Like Dogs but Are Not Related.

Hyena standing in grassland

Witthawat Yutthagosa / EyeEm / Getty Images

With their square heads and powerful bodies, hyenas look similar to larger breeds of dogs. The reality, however, is that hyenas are not related to dogs. They are more closely related to cats, mongooses, and civets, but have their own unique family of mammals, the Hyaenidae.

2. Only Some of Them "Laugh".

Some hyenas really do make a noise that sounds a lot like maniacal giggling. But it's only the spotted hyenas that make the sound, and it has nothing to do with having a sense of humor. Rather, their "laughter" is an indication of nervous excitement or submission to a more dominant hyena. Spotted hyenas also make a range of sounds, including "whooping" noises that they use to call their young.

3. Striped Hyenas Can Double in Size.

Striped Hyena

Sanjeev Kumar Goyal / Getty Images

Striped hyenas are usually silent, except for a cackling sound that can rise to a howl. When scared, they can raise the hair along their backs and nearly double in size. This is believed to be a last-ditch effort to frighten off potential predators who are too big to fight and too close to escape.

4. All Are From Different Regions of Africa.

Different hyena species dwell in different African locations. While striped hyenas prefer the dry, rocky lands of northern Africa, brown and spotted hyenas live in sub-Saharan Africa. Aardwolves prefer bushlands found in southern and eastern parts of Africa.

5. Spotted Hyenas Sleep in Water to Stay Cool.

Hyena in Water Hole

Raimund Linke / Getty Images

Spotted hyenas are residents of sub-Saharan Africa, one of the hottest parts of the world. While other animals might hide out in dens to stay cool, spotted hyenas sleep in pools of water at watering holes or under bushes. They also have the option of hunting during the night, but they are usually cooling off in the evening.

6. They Sometimes Go Head-To-Head With Lions.

Hyenas attacking lions

Londolozi Images/Mint Images / Getty Images

Lions and hyenas hunt for the same food, so it's not surprising that they sometimes find themselves in competition for the same meal. When that happens, a fight may break out. Lions typically win, often injuring or killing the hyena — but hyenas can call out for help when threatened. If the hyena is joined by a group of friends, the hyenas may be able to chase away a lion.

7. They Will Eat Nearly Anything.

Hyenas have powerful jaws and teeth which allow them to eat carrion (already-dead mammals) including their bones, horns, and teeth. They later regurgitate horns, hair, and hooves. Hyenas are also willing to scavenge crops, especially fruit, from nearby farms, and they won't turn their noses up at frogs, beetles, or grasshoppers.

8. Female Spotted Hyenas Have Pseudopenises.

It's very difficult to tell a male from a female just by looking at them. That's because female spotted hyenas have genitalia that look and function almost exactly the same way as the male penis. These structures are called penile-clitorises, and they are accompanied by a structure called a pseudoscrotum. Female hyenas mate, urinate, and actually give birth with their penile-clitorises. (Quite a few female hyenas unfortunately die during the birthing process, and cubs that get caught in the very long birth canal can suffocate.)

9. Adult Males Eat Last.

Spotted Hyaena pack, Crocuta crocuta, feeding on kill. Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Female hyenas are bigger, stronger, and tougher than their male counterparts. Hyenas live in large clans, and when food is available, females and cubs eat first. Once male cubs are old enough to manage on their own (at age two or three) they are thrown out of their clan and must find a new one. It's entirely up to the females to decide whether or not to accept a new male into their group.

10. Hyenas May Be as Smart as Monkeys.

Researchers investigating hyena intelligence are still trying to find its limits. Hyenas live in complex societies and have intricate social rules. They are able to use distraction and deception to get their way when it comes to food and sex. They can even solve complex puzzles (sometimes more efficiently than primates), unlatch lunchboxes, and otherwise outsmart the humans studying them.

11. Their Hostility Is Exaggerated in Media.

They eat children. They rob graves. They are villainous tricksters and servile followers. Hyenas have always been pegged with unpleasant myths. While hyenas are carnivores and carrion-eaters, and they have been known to steal food from other predators, they are no more likely than any other mammal to attack a human.

12. Aardwolves Weren't Always Considered Hyenas.


Paul Souders / Getty Images

Aardwolves were classified in their own family, Protelid, but today they are recognized as members of the hyena family. They look similar to striped hyenas with a thick mane running from head to tail, but are only about a quarter the size. Unlike their hyena cousins, aardwolves eat nothing but termites. In fact, aardwolves can eat up to 300,000 termites per night.

View Article Sources
  1. Cunha, Gerald R. et al. "Urogenital System Of The Spotted Hyena (Crocuta Crocuta Erxleben): A Functional Histological Study." Journal Of Morphology, vol. 256, no. 2, 2003, pp. 205-218., doi:10.1002/jmor.10085

  2. Drea, Christine M., and Allisa N. Carter. "Cooperative Problem Solving In A Social Carnivore." Animal Behaviour, vol. 78, no. 4, 2009, pp. 967-977., doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.06.030