Hunched over a still-warm carcass, the spotted hyena lifts its head and laughs. It seems like a sinister scene. But while hyenas are often portrayed as villains in popular culture, there’s a complexity to these animals that goes far beyond their scavenger habits. Behind the hyena’s ways is an intricate social system that runs on one rule – the female is in charge.
Found across Africa in clans of up to 80 members, spotted hyena families are matrilineal. The females are larger, more aggressive, and they even have a pseudopenis which they give birth from. Cubs are next in rank, guarded by their mothers and given protection and preference. Male young who come of age leave the group to find another. Sitting at the bottom of the pecking order, they’ll often be left with only bones to eat.
Though hyenas are notorious for being scavengers, they also hunt in teams to bring down animals as large as wildebeest. Meals aren’t always easy to come by as big cats rule the plains, so hyenas occasionally snack on smaller creatures such as birds and lizards. If a challenger tries to steal their food, hyenas make a giggling sound. The cackles are an expression of stress or frustration. Among the range of vocalisations that this species produces, it’s one of the most common.
The hyenas’ social structure is the secret to their success. Giving precedence to the matriarchs of their lineage, these animals aren’t as nefarious as they appear. But in every hyena clan, it’s the females who have the last laugh.