Spotted Hyenas Are Smart, Social, and Ruled by Females

A photo shot by "BeetleCam" shows the beauty and intelligence of these unsung underdogs.

Spotted hyenas

Will Burrard-Lucas via bioGraphic

Spotted hyenas—also known as laughing hyenas—don't have the best reputation. From myriad cultural myths to The Lion King, Crocuta crocuta is generally seen as a malevolent creature, often portending gloom and ill-fortune. And OK, maybe they do have a hauntingly human cackle, and yes, they attack people once in a while. But nobody's perfect, and the spotted hyena's awesomeness should more than make up for what may seem as unsavory to some.

Coming from neither cat nor dog family, C. crocuta is one of the few members of the family Hyaenidae. With only four extant species in the group, it is one of the smallest families in the class Mammalia. Of the four species, it turns out that spotted hyenas are the most social and also have a significantly larger forebrain (where the complex decision-making magic happens) than their nearest relatives.

Their larger brain size appears to be associated with their complex social arrangements. As the multimedia magazine bioGraphic, explains of hyena society:

"Native throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, spotted hyenas live in large, interrelated, matriarchal clans of up to a hundred individuals. Able to recognize even distant kin, such as great aunts and cousins, spotted hyenas learn their social rank as cubs, and use that information throughout their lives to build social alliances, resolve conflicts, and gain access to resources."

While other species of hyenas may be more prone to scavenging, spotted hyenas capture most of their prey and do so by working together, enabling them to tackle even large animals like wildebeests and Cape buffalo. The clan's ruling she-hyena gets the first pick of the kill, followed by the rest.

Curiously, the clan’s leader gets her rank not because of her size or ferocity but because of her popularity, notes bioGraphic. The hyena with the most extensive network of allies in the clan becomes the queen of the savannah.

Given the fact that hyenas aren't the most docile of creatures, you might be wondering where photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who took the shot above, got his nerves of steel. As it turns out, Burrard-Lucas has long worked on creating innovative technologies to encourage wildlife photography that is as least invasive as possible; especially intended for capturing images of shy, nocturnal, and potentially dangerous animals.

"Having followed this clan throughout the previous night in Zambia's Liuwa Plain National Park, he deployed his remote-controlled 'BeetleCam' at daybreak and drove it straight into the group," explains bioGraphic. "As the strange interloper approached, the hyenas gathered around to investigate, allowing Burrard-Lucas to capture an intimate portrait of this powerful and curious species."

Visit Burrard-Lucas Wildlife Photography for more about his innovative methods and some extraordinary photos of creatures great and small.