The SPOTTED HYENA is not a habitual scavenger, despite what you may have heard, and it is fabulously intelligent to boot. They have a reputation that they are ugly villains that only eat dead things. Then they ‘whoop’ with laughter.
The spotted hyena deserves respect, not contempt. More often, than not, they hunt down their prey rather than scavenge. They have massive brains and one of the most complex social set-ups of any carnivore. The scavenger stereotype may apply to striped and brown hyenas, which eat a lot of carrion, but it can hardly be attributed to an animal capable of taking down an adult wildebeest, four times its size. The spotted hyena will, often, tackle herds of zebras. They have far larger fore-brains (the region involved with complex decision-making) than the other two species.
Spotted hyenas are often found in very large and very fluid groups. The smallest spotted hyena clans are about the same size as a big lion pride or big wild dog or wolf pack. “The biggest gathering had 72 animals in it,” says hyena expert Kay Holekamp. Another clan, she is studying, contains 130 individuals. So, the vocal repertoire of spotted hyenas is several times as rich as that of other hyenas, or for that matter, lions. One of their calls, is the famous WHOOP. There is something, undeniably, sinister about this call, particularly when it comes in the pitch darkness of an African night. But, to those who understand spotted hyenas, it is simply an effective way to establish and maintain contact with each other over a distance.
Each hyena uses sounds, smells and visual clues to recognise others in their clan. Holekam says, ‘imagine trying to keep track of 130 different hyenas. That’s quite a cognitive task, but they seem able to do it just fine.” The spotted hyena society is also notable for the dominance of females over its males. This is not the case in the other two more traditionally familial hyena species.
—- Henry Nicholls for BBC