Laying in bed at the end of a long day in the bush, you hear a distinctive high-pitched giggling sound, a hee-hee-hee on helium.
Even without your guide at hand, you know this one: it’s a hyena.
The hyena’s “laugh” is a well-known sound in the bush
But what’s that strange, whooping call, like an animal with a slide-whistle lodged in its throat? Or the eerie, low-pitched “oooh” that sounds something like a recording of a space alien being played back at 1/10th the speed? Or the rapid, high-pitched staccato screeching? Didn’t the guide say there were no chimpanzee near this campsite?
Believe it or not, all those strange sounds come from hyena, too. From rumbling bass growls to strange, shrieking squeals, hyena use a wide range of vocalizations to communicate with one another and with other predators.
Whooping is probably the best-known hyena vocalization after giggling
The vocalizations are just one indicator of the hyena’s extreme intelligence. Often dismissed as carrion-eaters, hyena are actually primarily cooperative hunters, living in hierarchical clans with complex social structures that dictate their day-to-day lives.
Each of these calls (scientists have identified as many as 14) communicates specific information to the rest of the clan. Though we may hear it as laughter, the hyena’s giggle sound actually means it’s being attacked or chased, generally in a dispute over a kill. Groans are part of the greeting ceremony, but grunts are a warning to an unwelcome hyena to hightail it, fast. And while some whoops mean the clan is gearing up for a fight, others mean nothing at all, the hyena equivalent of singing in the shower!
Not only do they talk to each other, hyena lie to each other. Scientists have observed hyena using distress calls when no enemies are present (but when food they’d rather not share is), a behavior both cunning and effective.
The hyena’s strange groaning sound communicates to its clan
Some scientists even posit that hyena are as smart or smarter than primates; in a cooperative problem-solving study, hyena handily outperformed chimpanzee (humans’ closest living relatives in the animal kingdom).
Whether or not they’re the smartest animal you’ll encounter on your safari is debatable, but one thing is certain: they’re definitely one of the loudest.
Can you understand what these hyena are trying to say? Check out more calls here:
Audio clips from acoustics.org