Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The spotted hyena, known for its distinctive laughing sound, is a highly social animal.
The spotted hyena, known for its distinctive laughing sound, is a highly social animal. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Spotted hyenas, the social, carnivorous creatures often referred to as "laughing hyenas," live across Africa and east to India. Their laughing sound, however, "has nothing to do with hyenas having a good time," says Sarah Benson-Amram, a zoology student from Michigan State University, who spent two years in Kenya studying the hyenas and recording their sounds. "In fact, they're usually pretty stressed out. Often they giggle once they've been attacked."
The hyenas live in groups of up to 90 animals called "clans," says Benson-Amram, and it's a female-dominated society.
"You'll often have just a whole mess of hyenas trying to get food, trying to get access to a carcass," she says. "So often you'll have some aggression at that carcass. You'll have one hyena biting another or displacing another, so when that happens, the hyena that has been bitten or displaced will often giggle. So you hear a lot of giggles at carcasses."
Benson-Amram says she was watching Pan, one of the top-ranking hyenas in her study clan. "She had, on her shoulder, lion paw scratch marks. There was also a carcass about 300 meters from the scene, so my guess is that they had an interaction with lions earlier that morning that I hadn't seen and gotten pretty beat up."
"I love them. They just have personality," Benson-Amram says. "As a scientist, you're not supposed to anthropomorphize, but there are some that are just really aggressive, there are some that are more playful, there are some that are really curious — it's like a soap opera. You follow their lives and you get really involved."