Why Do Hyenas Laugh? Are They Really Chuckling?

Aashita Dhingra
Feb 29, 2024 By Aashita Dhingra
Originally Published on Oct 27, 2021
Spotted hyena in park.
Age: 3-18
Read time: 7.2 Min

'Hyena's laugh' is actually a phrase used to describe the sounds made by a hyena when it is faced with adversity or is trying to express something.

Hyenas are ruthless scavengers who derive their food from the kills made by hunters like lions and tigers. They do not hunt for themselves, instead they gang up near dead prey that has been left behind by bigger predators.

However, this does not mean they are incapable of hunting on their own. They look like a fox or a big dog, but they are actually closer to cats with respect to their biology. They are found across the African continent, eastern Arabia, and India. There are four species of hyenas out of which only one species displays the infamous 'hyena laugh'.

While humans laugh out of joy and happiness, the idea of joy and pleasure among hyenas might come off as a bit sadistic. They are known to laugh as they successfully take prey under their control, somewhat signifying their victory. These mammals have the strongest jaws in proportion to their body size across the entire mammal kingdom making them ruthless predators.

If you found this article interesting, do check out why do horses need shoes and why do giraffes have long necks.

Do all hyenas laugh?

Not all hyenas laugh and its only the spotted hyena that actually displays this infamous laugh. While all hyena species are matrilineal, spotted hyenas are exceptionally rigid in this matter. Spotted hyena females rule the clan and they are the supreme force in the hierarchy. Its the females who play the death and dodge game while hunting and bringing in food to eat. The males have virtually no major role to play in the clan, displaying passive behavior. A male hyena also lives at the very bottom of the hierarchy.

In the world of spotted hyenas, an orphaned male cub has very low chances of survival as they will be estranged from every clan they go to. While in other species, an abandoned cub might still be able to find foster guardians, this becomes practically impossible for an orphaned spotted hyena cub to continue in its own clan. On the flip side, female cubs rank high in the hierarchy and are favored over male cubs just like the adults because they are expected to carry the lineage.

The term 'hyena laugh' is an implication of hysterical or maniacal laughter. Since its well known by now that hyenas don't laugh out of joy like humans do, the idiom puts in effect the seriousness of a situation. Most of the time, the laugh of spotted hyenas is in response to agitation or attack. This means a situation where such a reference is used is definitely an uncomfortable situation for either party.

How and when do hyenas laugh?

The laughter is actually a vocalization produced by hyenas when they are stressed or out of frustration. They let out desperate calls in response to their surroundings especially while sensing intruders as they are highly sensitive to their social surroundings and excellent observers.

Aggression can be seen when they are united and start hunting in packs for food. The atmosphere for hunting becomes very stressful. A frenzy begins in order to grab as much food as possible. The stress of gathering food and survival in the pack leads to outbursts of physical exclamation which comes out in the form of laughter, reflecting their maniacal behavior. A hyena may also produce a laughter-like sound when it is frustrated during hunting. This is the vocalization of an angry hyena that didn't get what it wanted. This agitation can also occur when another group member attempts to steal its food, while one of the hyenas is already feeding on it. Food is a central cause of stress in these wild animals. The serious fight for food among hyena societies usually results in a bloodbath. Nonetheless, the clan members will gang up together, against a common enemy like lions who are the actual hunters. While the lions actually hunt for the food, these cunning scavengers will ward them off with their petrifying laughter to grab the food that lays in front of them.

These animals of the wild clearly do laugh when they are stressed out. However, they have adapted to a wide range of vocalizations which are related to their current mood and can be distinguished on the basis of pitch, depth, volume, and range of vocals. Low pitch sounds indicate aggression or social conflict, just like dogs. These can only be heard within a short distance whereas high pitch sounds might indicate fear or a cry for help which includes laughing and giggling noises as perceived by humans.

A burst of laughter occurs when they grab prey at the kill scene. These vocalizations display an array of complex emotions. You can hear hyenas laugh when they assemble around the prey. You can even hear their laughs intensifying while they are battling over a piece of meat. However, in most cases it's the males who are left to scramble over the leftovers. In a traditional setup, the females dine first, bringing the cubs in next to feed. The adult males get the last bite. Laughter does not only mean something has been killed. Hyenas may laugh when they are being attacked and their laugh is a plea for help.

Crocuta crocuta after meals walking in the park.

What is the hyenas laugh called?

Do they really laugh? To answer this, the action of a hyena laughing actually has different meanings. While a spotted hyena or crocuta is the one who 'giggles', other hyena species produce minor grunts, growls, and squeaks.

The laughter vocalization for which they are known for is a high-pitched series of short giggling sounds. These are their source of expression, just like any other animal. It's common to have one animal sound differentiated from other. Its not difficult for an animal sound to be misinterpreted by humans and hyenas are a good example to prove this point. The human perception of 'laughter' is an unconscious act of projecting our emotions onto non-human behaviors displayed by animals while they could turn out to be completely different!

If you happen to come across a laughing hyena, chances are you are going to be terrified of these noises. Their laugh is definitely not because of something funny. Though these sounds involve excitement, it is an excitement of aggression, fear, action against a prey, and social conflict. It is important to remember not all hyenas laugh, its only spotted hyenas that laugh. They laugh hysterically in response to adversity and every hyena has a unique 'giggle' or sound pattern. These giggles help them identify themselves in their own groups while other hyenas can instantly spot if they are related to their group or not. Researchers suggest that they can recognize their clan members as well as intruders with their vocalizations, showing their efficient communication skills both in and outside their group.

What other vocalizations do hyenas make?

A hyena's laugh can actually indicate its present mood and there is not really a definite way to distinguish these sounds. You can grasp the mood better if you actually see one. The hysterical laughter, for instance, is usually a sign of frustration, a cry for help! Just as stressful as it is for the hyena itself, there's nothing funny about these laughing sounds and can chill the spine of the most experienced wildlife guide.

An interesting takeaway from a hyena's giggle is that it can reflect the social status of the giggler in the hierarchy and hyena clan. Researchers confirm that the pitch is inversely correlated to social status. The lower the rank, the higher the pitch and the shriller the sound. The higher the rank, the deeper the pitch and a lower sound.

Hyena females usually rank higher than males. It's the males who need to impress the females in order to mate. Understandably, a cheerful and seemingly approachable partner is desirable for any animal to mate with. Besides smiling, these low-ranking animals make sounds like laughter or giggles to make their presence felt among the potential mates. Being the most abundant largest predators on the African continent, hyenas are a part of the national heritage. Their complex social groups, cunning tactics, and nocturnal nature coupled with their hysterical laugh make these animals appear to be wild and scary scavengers.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for why do hyenas laugh then why not take a look at why do animals have tails, or spotted hyena facts.

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Written by Aashita Dhingra

Bachelors in Business Administration

Aashita Dhingra picture

Aashita DhingraBachelors in Business Administration

Based in Lucknow, India, Aashita is a skilled content creator with experience crafting study guides for high school-aged kids. Her education includes a degree in Business Administration from St. Mary's Convent Inter College, which she leverages to bring a unique perspective to her work. Aashita's passion for writing and education is evident in her ability to craft engaging content.

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