What Is a Laughing Hyena, and Does It Really Laugh?
There is a type of hyena that is known as the laughing hyena. This is the spotted hyena of Africa. Despite its name, the laughing hyena doesn’t really laugh. Its “laughter” is a cackling howl that only sounds like shrill laughter. The laughing cry can most often be heard during the breeding season and when the hyena is excited over something.
Laughing hyenas also whoop, growl, grunt and squeal. Hyenas are predators, as well as scavengers. When they have captured prey, the hyenas laugh and whoop as each fights for its share of the food.
Efficient communication among individual animals is critical for reliable exchange of information in any society as complex as that of the spotted hyena. As in many other animals, communication among spotted hyenas serves different functions, including individual identification, recruitment of allies, reinforcement of social bonds among individual clan members, indication of social status, coordination of group activities and modulation of aggression among clan mates.
Spotted hyenas rely heavily on information contained in visual and tactile signals when they are in close proximity to clan mates, and on information contained in olfactory and acoustic signals when they are at both short and long distances.
Spotted hyenas have a rich vocal repertory; they emit about a dozen distinct vocalizations, most of which can be modulated in various ways to alter their meaning to listeners. Spotted hyenas are often called “laughing hyenas” because their giggle vocalization sounds very much like hysterical human laughter. The giggle is a loud, high-pitched rapid series of staccato “hee-hee-hee” sounds.
When hyenas want to coordinate clan mates to form coalitions against lions, they produce a vocalization, called “lowing,” that sounds very much like the mooing of a cow. Spotted hyenas produce “alarm rumbles” to signal danger; these are deep, rapid staccato sounds that are heard most frequently when a lion or a human on foot appears over a rise within sight of a group of hyenas.
When mother hyenas want to call their infants up out of a den, they groan into the den hole, and their cubs soon pop out on the surface. When cubs are hungry, they produce a grating fingernails-on-blackboard sound, with their lips pulled back from their teeth, to encourage their mother to lie down so they can nurse. We call this annoying sound a “squitter.”
The hyena’s whoop vocalization is a series of discrete calls produced in a bout of sound that can travel distances of more than two miles. The voices of adults are deep, but the whoops emitted by the cubs are very high-pitched.