Sep 8, 2017

Wordology, Laughing Hyena

It is used to describe someone cackling: "laughing like a hyena."
Scientists who have studied hyenas will tell you the unique sounds they make are not actually laughing. Hyenas do indeed make loud barking noises that sound like cackling laughter, but it is not because they are amused by anything.

Instead, a hyena's sound is actually a form of communication used to convey frustration, excitement, warning, or fear. Most often, you hear this unique vocalization during a hunt or when the animals are feeding on prey as a group.

What sounds like maniacal giggling to humans lets other hyenas know that one of the other members of their pack has either made a kill or been attacked. When sharing a fresh kill, the sound might also indicate frustration on the part of a younger animal that did not get its fair share yet. Likewise, the animal in possession of the meat might also 'laugh' as a warning to others that it is not ready to share yet.

There are several species of hyenas, and they all have a variety of unique vocalizations. Only one of these species, the spotted hyena makes the laughing sound that has become synonymous with hyenas, in general.


Researchers have also learned that the pitch of a hyena's sound usually varies dependent upon its social status. Hyena packs are matrilineal, which means that females are dominant and lead the pack. There is intense competition for food within a pack, and the subordinate animals, often male tend to make the sound more frequently with a higher pitch.