The Lion King is one of my favourite Disney films EVAR. Possibly even my favourite, depending on whether I’m in more of an animal mood or a feminist mood (in the case of the latter, Mulan wins). Anyway, one of the reasons that the Lion King is so awesome, besides the amazing songs and the bit that everybody cries at, is these guys:
The hyenas! I just don’t think hyenas are featured enough in animated films. How else are we to know about their interesting anatomy, their unusual social structure and their high levels of social cognition?! I guess that leaves it down to losers like me to bring you this information, then. Because I think hyenas are a lot more interesting and intelligent than we give them credit for.
Hyenas are awesome. If you don’t believe me, I hope that you will once you read this post. There are three species of hyena in Africa: The spotted hyena, the striped hyena, and the brown hyena. Of these, the spotted hyena is the most common, and the ones that the Lion King trio were based on. I will mostly be referring to the spotted hyena throughout this post.
So what are hyenas? Are they from the feline family, or the canines? Are they more cat or dog? Neither, actually. The hyenas are a family of their own, the Hyaenidae. Interestingly though, hyenas are actually more closely related to the mongoose (a biological family called Herpestidae) than to the cat or dog. When you think of hyenas, you may automatically think of wily scavengers, waiting on a brave lion to make a kill then steal the scraps to feed themselves. This is not true: Hyenas hunt and kill about 90-95% of their food. Of course, they scavenge when the opportunity arises, but most carnivores do this and hyenas certainly hunt and kill their own prey more than they scavenge.
Another interesting fact about hyenas is that the females are the dominant sex. This is fairly unusual in mammals. The females are bigger and stronger than the males and the hyena matriarchal social structure is fiercely strict: So much so that even an ickle baby female hyena is is automatically dominant over every adult male in the clan.
Female spotted hyenas also sport very, very long clitorises. The clitoris is so large (about 7 inches from the body!) that it is almost indistinguishable from a male penis. They also give birth through this clitoris, and so it may come as no surprise to learn that giving birth is extremely risky: Pushing a two-pound cub out of that tight squeeze means the female is prone to potentially lethal injuries. First-time mothers are particularly vulnerable to complications during childbirth: It is not unusual for them to die during the process.
Spotted hyenas are incredibly intelligent. Their social intelligence is particularly striking. They even outperform chimpanzees on problem-solving tasks which measure group cooperation. In fact, in this particular task which involves two hyenas working together to pull ropes in order to get food, is carried out by spotted hyenas with up to 100% accuracy after a training trial. It seems that spotted hyenas are hard-wired experts at social cooperation. Not quite the laughing scavengers people often think about. Speaking of that laugh, it’s something I haven’t even mentioned yet but this video shows the typical noise quite nicely.
It’s not entirely understood what function this crazy vocalisation has, but it’s been suggested that the pitch of the “laugh” may communicate something about the spotted hyena’s social status. It’s also been suggested that the laugh could actually be a sign of frustration.
1. Hyenas are not scavengers: They’re cool, clever, highly social animals
2. They live in clans which are ruled by the females
3. The females have HUGE clitorises
4. They make a funny laughing sound, but we’re not sure why.
5. I don’t yet have the Lion King on DVD (only VHS) so if anyone wants to buy me a copy, feel free.