Who's Laughing Now? | Science | Smithsonian
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(Suzi Eszterhas)

Who's Laughing Now?

Long maligned as nasty scavengers, hyenas turn out to be protective parents and accomplished hunters

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Our headlights pick up the gleamıng eyes of nine spotted hyenas stalking single file across the savanna. "Zebra hunt," says Kay Holekamp, killing the Land Cruiser's engine. We're about 100 miles west of Nairobi in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve.

The hyenas walk parallel to the herd with their heads turned toward it. The agitated zebras gallop back and forth in short, panicky dashes, then skitter off into the absolute darkness. The hyenas follow at a walk and disappear into the night. "They'll circle, watch, lie down, then get back up and do it all again until they finally decide to attack," says Holekamp, a biologist who has been studying spotted hyenas in the park for 20 years.

Spotted hyenas are some of Africa's most proficient predators. A frenzied scrum of them can dismantle and devour a 400-pound zebra in 25 minutes. An adult spotted hyena can tear off and swallow 30 or 40 pounds of meat per feeding. Latecomers to a kill use their massive jaw muscles and molars to pulverize the bones for minerals and fatty marrow. Hair and hooves get regurgitated later. "The only thing left is a patch of blood on the ground," says Holekamp.

Holekamp, 56, alternates working in the field in Masai Mara and teaching at Michigan State University in Lansing. (She lives on 13 acres outside the city with her partner and occasional collaborator, neurobiologist Laura Smale, also a professor at MSU.) Everyone around Masai Mara knows "Mama Fisi"—fisi is Swahili for hyena—the blond woman in oversized T-shirts who returns every summer to her tent camp on the Talek River, where baboons sometimes raid the food tent, a gennet cat loiters near the supper table, bats hang from tent poles and the night resounds with chuffing leopards, pinging fruit bats and whooping hyenas. "I expected to study spotted hyenas for three years and move on," says Holekamp, "but they just kept getting more interesting."

Though they resemble dogs, the four species of hyena—spotted, striped, brown and the aardwolf—are actually more closely related to cats, and closest to mongooses and civets. Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), also known as laughing hyenas, live in forests, swamps, deserts and mountains throughout Africa. They are the best-known, biggest (up to 189 pounds, though 135 is typical), most numerous and strangest hyenas, and not just because of their sloping profile and demented "laugh"—a high-pitched cackle they emit when frightened or excited. Spotted hyenas are also gender-benders and role reversers.

Spotted hyenas sometimes scavenge, but, contrary to popular belief, they kill 95 percent of their food. As hunters, alone or in groups, they equal leopards, cheetahs and lions. Yet the lion is considered noble, the cheetah graceful and the leopard courageous, while the hyena is seen as sneaky and vicious—a cringing scavenger, a graveyard lurker. Few creatures inspire such a queasy mixture of fear, disgust and disdain. Most zoos snub them—no public demand. Conservation groups do not use hyena photos to raise money. Across epochs and continents, from the Bible to African folk tales, from Theodore Roosevelt ("foul and evil ferocity...as cowardly as it is savage") and Ernest Hemingway ("devourer of the dead...sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul") to Disney's The Lion King ("slobbery, mangy, stupid vultures"), our reaction to hyenas is the same: yech.

In the 1960s, a few field researchers finally began peeling away centuries of ignorance. The chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, working in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, expected to dislike spotted hyenas, but they soon won her over. "Hyenas are second only to chimpanzees in fascination," she wrote; "they are born clowns, highly individualistic." Wildlife biologist George Schaller, studying lions on the Serengeti in the 1960s, exploded another misperception by reporting that lions scavenged more kills from hyenas than vice versa. Around the same time, naturalist Hans Kruuk spent three and a half years with the Serengeti's spotted hyenas. He expected odious solitary scavengers but instead found sophisticated hunters living in complex clans. In 1979, Laurence Frank, from the University of California at Berkeley, began studying spotted hyenas in the Masai Mara. A few years later he and his colleague Stephen Glickman captured 20 cubs and took them back to Berkeley for a long-term study. Today 26 captive hyenas live in a research center in the hills above campus.

Holekamp got her doctorate at Berkeley, writing a dissertation on ground squirrels, and then worked briefly with Frank in Masai Mara. Spotted hyenas won her over. In the past 20 years she and her graduate students have created a large database about the Masai Mara animal's diet, movements, communication, births, deaths, lines of descent, morphology, conservation, intelligence, social organization and behavior. But Holekamp is most interested in the ways hyenas bend gender roles. "By studying an animal that seems to contradict the usual rules," she says, "you can shed light on what the rules really are. Plus, I just think they're really cool."

One gender contradiction is the female spotted hyena's long clitoris, almost indistinguishable from a penis, through which the animals urinate, mate and even give birth. Scientists call the unusual organ, which is capable of becoming erect, a pseudopenis or a peniform clitoris. To further confuse matters, a female's labia are fused and made bulbous by two fatty pads, creating the illusion of a scrotum. For centuries, because of these anomalies, hyenas were suspected of being hermaphrodites capable of changing gender and performing witchcraft. More than once, Holekamp has been startled when a putative male known to her since cub-hood suddenly gave birth.

What's more, female spotted hyenas are bigger and more aggressive than males. Every clan is a matriarchy ruled by an alpha female. In the clan's strict power structure, adult males rank last. They must swallow abuse even from the most obnoxious juveniles or risk violent punishment from female coalitions. At a communal carcass, adult males eat last—if there's anything left. When a male kills dinner on his own, he must gorge quickly before female clan members shove him aside.

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