If you are a fan of Disney movies, you may immediately associate spotted hyenas with Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed- the antagonist trio from The Lion King. While this movie portrays spotted hyenas as evil sidekicks and scavengers, these mammals are incredibly complex and play a crucial role in many ecosystems.

Out of all hyena species, spotted hyenas – or Crocuta crocuta – are the largest and most widespread. They can be found across Sub-Saharan Africa in all habitats, from savannas to mountains to forests. Spotted hyenas are also very social and live in clans that can have over 100 members! These clans are led by an alpha female and have a highly complex hierarchical structure, which signifies their remarkable intelligence. Their physical appearance is often considered “unusual” and is defined by a long neck, uneven leg length, and short but thick fur covered in a spot pattern. Spotted hyenas all have a unique spot pattern, allowing for easy identification of individuals.

Thanks to popular culture, spotted hyenas are most well-known for being scavengers and eating the leftovers that other predators leave behind. Scavengers like the spotted hyena are actually very important for ecosystems because they prevent diseases from spreading by removing bacteria and poisons from the environment, which protects other animals and humans. While spotted hyenas are undoubtedly excellent scavengers, they also happen to be skilled hunters and keep populations in check. In fact, the majority of their prey comes from hunting rather than scavenging. Spotted hyenas can take down almost any target they encounter, including wildebeest, water buffalo, and antelope.

The popular phrase “laugh like a hyena” comes from spotted hyenas’ loud noises, which often sound like human giggles. However, hyenas are not actually laughing! They use these unique noises as a communication tool between other group members to convey emotions, such as excitement or fear. 

While commonly portrayed as lacking intellect, talent, and compassion, spotted hyenas are highly intellectual, display excellent teamwork, and exhibit complex emotions. Their role in ecosystems cannot be understated, and it is time to give these mammals the recognition they deserve. Be sure to take these spotted hyena facts with you on safari and bust any myths about these valuable and intelligent animals!