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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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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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