Is it fantastic? Yes
Where to find them: Central and Southern Africa
For many, The Lion King was our first introduction to the spotted hyena. As Scar’s cowardly and dimwitted lackeys, they acted as opportunistic bandits whose best character trait was an insatiable sense of humor. This portrayal, though amusing, severely undersold their real-life wonder. Although shown as lowly henchmen, spotted hyenas have a social system comparable to that of primates, a bite strength able to crack bones with relative ease, and one of the most unique sex organs found in any mammal.
More related to cats than dogs, spotted hyenas outpace wolves as having the largest and most complex social system of any carnivorous mammal. A hyena pack (called a “clan”) can include up to 80 members, and is run by dominant females (1). In fact, the mythical Amazons may have based their culture off of hyenas, as any immigrant male (no matter their age or status) will have a lower rank than all females within the clan. In line with this power dynamic, females are also larger, stronger, and more aggressive than their male counterparts.
Still, with massive clans that can span miles, how are individuals able to recognize the various ranks of their members? Well, hyenas create several vocal sounds to convey status, location, anxiety, and aggression. For example, those iconic high-pitched giggles can allow each hyena to convey their rank within their clan (2). As such, if a low-ranking hyena does not yield food or space to the laugh of a superior, it can result in painful, physical punishment. And physical fights for hyenas are no joke.
Although portrayed as cowards, they have one of the strongest bites in the living animal kingdom — even greater than that of the lions they fictionally serve (3). The crushing force of their jaws gives them the unique label of “bone-cracking” specialists. This ability allows them to eat their prey whole; it has been observed that a group of spotted hyenas can completely consume an adult zebra in half an hour. Their jaws, however are not their most shocking physical feature.
Female spotted hyenas have what is referred to as a “pseudo-penis”. Instead of a vulva, their clitoris has enlarged and lengthened to an appendage rivaling the size of male’s phallus. It is through this sex organ that females urinate, copulate, and give birth. In this case, the idea of passing a child through one’s penis is not far from truth. It isn’t fully understood why this would evolve, but some research shows that when a female’s pseudo-penis becomes erect (yes, you read that right) it can be used as a greeting to other members of the clan (4).
So, it looks as if the Lion King missed some key points about the life of the spotted hyena — some for good reason if they wanted to keep their PG rating. Though, with the new live action adaptation coming very soon, it’ll be worth note to see if the hyena is uplifted to the pedestal they deserve.
- Mills, G., & Hofer, H. (1998). Hyaenas: status survey and conservation action plan (No. 333.959 H992). IUCN, Gland (Suiza). SSC Hyaena Specialist Group.
- Mathevon, N., Koralek, A., Weldele, M., Glickman, S. E., & Theunissen, F. E. (2010). What the hyena’s laugh tells: Sex, age, dominance and individual signature in the giggling call of Crocuta crocuta. BMC ecology, 10(1), 9.
- Erickson, G. M., Lappin, A. K., & Vliet, K. A. (2003). The ontogeny of bite-force performance in American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Journal of Zoology, 260(3), 317-327.
- East, M. L., Hofer, H., & Wickler, W. (1993). The erect ‘penis’ is a flag of submission in a female-dominated society: greetings in Serengeti spotted hyenas. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 33(6), 355-370.