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12 Wild Facts About Hyenas

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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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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

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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