It was really rather disgusting and creepy when I first heard them laughing. There were several of them, with their heads inside a wildebeest. It had been killed by a lioness. The laughing hyenas surrounded her and pestered her until she left the fresh kill. (See Gross but Fascinating page.) They giggled and made a laugh-grunting noise as they pulled the innards from the wildebeest with their teeth. They snarled and snapped at each other and the smaller animals arriving on the scene. There was chaos! These carnivores had to eat or die.
In The Lion King, the hyenas were pictured as dark, evil characters who fought amongst themselves and joined up with the bad guy, Scar – not very likable characters at all! I have to admit, after watching their behavior with the wildebeest and lioness, the description of them fit!
I was surprised to learn how intelligent these animals are. Sociobiologists are scientists who study how animals interact with each other. They have watched many examples of hyenas working together to get what they want, one hyena teaching a skill to another hyena, even hyenas solving a new problem they had never encountered before. I saw evidence of this as I watched the hyenas on the Serengeti. When they wanted the wildebeest, they communicated with each other, and then they planned a strategy that worked.
Laughing hyenas are carnivores, eating freshly killed meat, but they are also scavengers. They eat animals that have been dead for awhile. Their powerful jaws enable them to chew up the bones as well as the meat of an animal.
How do they find dead animals in such a large area as the Serengeti Plain? They look up at the sky. When they see a flock of vultures flying in a circle, they run to that area. Vultures are scavengers too, and have a bird's-eye-view of what's happening on the plain.
Think about the role these grisly but intelligent animals play in the ecosystem of the Serengeti. How might the ecosystem change if the hyenas die out?