July 18, 2019
Debunking Five Common Myths About a Misunderstood Species
By Jordan Schimming
They’re smart, strong, social, and the most successful hunters in Africa. Are we describing the African lion? No, we’re talking about the spotted hyena! Words like those probably don’t come to mind when you think of hyenas thanks to pop culture. But movies and TV shows aren’t the only offenders—President Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Aristotle and Shakespeare have all played a role in tarnishing the hyena’s reputation.
Here at Denver Zoo, where we care for two separate hyena clans, we know the species’ true nature is a far cry from how they’re too often portrayed. With hyenas and many other African species coming back into the public eye this month, we want to clear up a few myths about these amazing animals:
Myth: Hyenas Steal Food from Lions
Fact: It’s actually the other way around—lions often steal food from hyenas. Hyenas have shorter hind legs, giving their backs that sloped appearance. This adaptation makes them great endurance runners, and accomplished hunters. Lions use this to their advantage and wait for hyenas to make a kill before using their large size to push the hyenas off the food and take it for themselves, while hyenas are left watching lions eat their hard work.
Myth: Hyenas are Stupid
Fact: Hyenas are very intelligent. Spotted hyenas have enlarged forebrains, which is the part of the brain involved with complex decision making. And we’re learning more about them every day. Our hyenas have participated in cognitive research solving puzzles. In one study, the hyenas had to figure out how to open doors in a box, and each went about it in a different way. Our young male Kelele and older male Kibo made quick work of the box, figuring out the doors easily. Our older female Ngozi took a different approach—she threw the box until a door would fall open, which was still effective. Our other two hyenas, Nia and Tavi, didn’t want to participate, so they ran out the clock taking naps and then would get food for moving to another area so we could retrieve the box. Perhaps those two are the most intelligent?
Myth: They’re Dogs. No, They’re Cats!
Fact: Hyenas are neither canines nor felines. They’re in their own family called Hyaenidae that consists of spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, brown hyenas, and aardwolves. Believe it or not, the hyenas’ closest relative at Denver Zoo is the banded mongoose! So, next time you’re here, say hi to our hyenas then stop by the banded mongoose habitat across from Benson Predator Ridge to meet their “cousins,” Doozer, Sprocket and Gobo!
Myth: Hyenas Have an “Evil” Laugh
Fact: The spotted hyena does make a vocalization that sounds like a laugh or a giggle, but it is not a laugh like you or I would make. In fact, their ‘laugh’ is not a happy noise at all—they only make it when they’re upset. Thankfully, here at the Zoo, it’s far more common to hear them making the classic ‘whoop’ calls, which they use to communicate location. It’s hard to describe—you just have to come to the Zoo to hear it yourself!
Myth: Hyenas are Hermaphroditic
Fact: Since male and female genitalia looks so similar on the outside, it can be difficult to tell males and females apart. But they are different, and their reproductive parts have different functions. Males have penises, and females have what’s called a “pseudo-penis,” which functions for urinating, mating and birthing. But at an early age, before a hyena is ready to mate, the anatomy looks so similar, we run blood tests to determine the hyena’s sex.
So, as you can see, hyenas are incredible animals and worth a closer look next time you visit Denver Zoo. Make sure you stop by to see our two clans in Predator Ridge, and time your visit to catch the daily demonstration, where you can get as close as you’d ever want to be to one of our hyenas and learn about their amazing natural characteristics. If you want to see our hyenas and all the species that call Predator Ridge home, you can still sign up for our Up-Close Animal Encounter. This amazing look at our award-winning habitat and the animals that call it home is only offered six times a year, so plan your visit today!
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