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Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

12 Wild Facts About Hyenas

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Hyenas are more than the carrion-eating villains of The Lion King. Though you may not ever fall in love with these cunning animals, it’s hard not to respect them.

1. A HYENA’S LAUGH INDICATES SOCIAL STATUS.

Hyenas don’t just laugh for fun. Scientists say that the pitch and the note frequency (or tone) of a hyena’s laugh can give an indication of its age and social status.

2. HYENAS ARE SMARTER THAN CHIMPS.

The size of an animal's frontal cortex is believed to be connected to its social intelligence, and hyenas have a frontal cortex on par with primates. A study done by Duke University showed that a captive pair of hyenas performed better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees. Even more amazing is that during the study, the hyenas solved all the problems in silence, using only non-verbal signals for communication.

3. THEY KILL BABY LIONS.

Hyenas and lions often fight over the same territories and hunt the same prey. This leads to fierce competition between the two animals. They steal each other’s food and kill off the young of their enemies.

4. SPOTTED HYENAS ARE CUNNING KILLERS.

Despite what Simba would have you believe, spotted hyenas don’t just scavenge for lion leftovers. Spotted hyenas hunt and kill in packs. Ninety-five percent of what a hyena eats comes from hunting. A group of hyenas can devour an entire zebra, leaving no leftovers—not even the bones—in under half an hour. However, this feeding frenzy comes at a cost; hyenas rip, claw, and fight with one another over the remains of their meal.

Of course, striped hyenas are a different story. Striped hyenas live off of carrion and are often hit by vehicles while eating road kill.

5. FEMALE HYENAS RULE.

Female spotted hyenas are more muscular and more aggressive than their male counterparts. This is because the females have three times as much testosterone in their bodies. As a result, spotted hyena societies are matriarchal. Even baby girl cubs rule over the boys.

6. THE FEMALE SPOTTED HYENA HAS A PENIS.

Female spotted hyenas have a pseudo-penis that is basically an elongated clitoris. Some pseudo-penises can grow up to seven inches long, totally besting the average length of the human penis.

7. THE LIFE OF A BABY HYENA ISN'T EASY.

The female spotted hyena uses her pseudo-penis for urination, copulation, and birth, which can make the birthing process difficult—it’s estimated that 60 percent of hyena cubs die from suffocation. (It's dangerous for the mothers, too; the baby cubs can tear the pseudo-penis lining, an injury that can prove fatal.) Those that do survive face several hardships of their own: Female hyenas have only two nipples, so litters of more than two have to fight to survive, leaving the weakest cubs to die of starvation

8. THEY HAVE CREEPY GREETING CEREMONIES.

When a spotted hyena greets another hyena after a long separation, they engage in greeting ceremonies during which both male and female members of the species develop erections.

9. BEING A MALE SPOTTED HYENA IS HARD.

In women-dominated spotted hyena clans, adult males are the lowest of the low. When the male hyena reaches sexual maturity at the age of two, he leaves home and goes to find a new group. This is a violent and vicious process. When the new group's alpha female finally allows the male in, he is welcomed by being constantly harassed and forced to struggle for food and sex.

10. HYENAS ARE DIFFICULT TO TAME.

Historians theorized that ancient Egyptians domesticated striped hyenas and used them as a food source. In ancient hieroglyphics, hyenas are often depicted in subordinate positions, being hunted and tamed. But in a 2010 paper published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, A. J. Legge surmises that this was all just Egyptian pomp. Because the striped hyena lives off of carrion, they would make for a terrible meal (what with all that trichinosis). Legge concludes that while hyenas may have been tamed for a period, it didn’t last long.

11. MOST OF THE MYTHS SURROUNDING HYENAS ARE JUST THAT.

Sordid myths and legends about hyenas abound. In Tanzania and India, legend holds that witches ride hyenas. An Ethiopian folk religion tells of people who possess the evil eye and can change themselves into the creatures. In the Middle Ages, hyenas were believed to dig up and consume the bodies of the dead. (It’s worth noting that they do nothing of the sort.)

12. HEMINGWAY HATED HYENAS.

Given their reputations as scavengers—and their creepy laughs—it makes sense that plenty of people don’t like hyenas. In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway wrote:

Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain …

Hemingway: 1, Hyenas: 0.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Why Crows Hold Noisy Funerals for Their Fallen Friends
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The next time you hear a murder of crows cackling for no apparent reason, show a little respect: You may have stumbled onto a crow funeral. Crows are among the few animals that exhibit a social response to a dead member of their species. Though their caws may sound like heartbroken cries, such funerals aren't so much about mourning their fallen friends as they are about learning from their mistakes.

In the video below from the PBS series Deep Look, Kaeli Swift, a researcher at the University of Washington's Avian Conservation Lab, investigates this unusual phenomenon firsthand. She familiarized herself with a group of crows in a Seattle park by feeding them peanuts in the same spot for a few days. After the crows got used to her visits, she returned to the site holding a dead, taxidermied crow and wearing a mask and wig to hide her identity. The crows immediately started their ritual by gathering in the trees and crying in her direction. According to Swift, this behavior is a way for crows to observe whatever might have killed the dead bird and learn to avoid the same fate. Flocking into a large, noisy group provides them protection from the threat if it's still around.

She tested her theory by returning to the same spot the next week without her mask or the stuffed crow. She offered the crows peanuts just as she had done before, only this time the birds were skittish and hesitant to take them from her. The idea that crows remember and learn from their funerals was further supported when she returned wearing the mask and wig. Though she didn't have the dead bird with her this time, the crows were still able to recognize her and squawked at her presence. Even birds that weren't at the funeral learned from the other birds' reactions and joined in the ruckus.

Swift was lucky this group of crows wasn't particularly vengeful. Crows have been known to nurse and spread grudges, sometimes dive-bombing people that have harmed one of their own.

[h/t Deep Look]

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