Hyenas got a real bad rep in Disney’s The Lion King. They’re the top scavengers of the African savannah though they do also hunt and bring down prey, and they are largely known for two things: for laughing and for turning the notion of “patriarchy” on its head!
For a long time, the species was believed to be hermaphrodite, as back at the beginning of the 19th century, early explorers saw that their caged “male” hyenas could actually give birth. The clitoris of the female hyena is so large that it is indistinguishable from the male hyena‘s penis. In addition, they have a fake scrotum made by the enlarged joined vulva, and pseudo-testes filled with fatty tissue.
Why, you ask? Female spotted hyenas carry higher levels of testosterone than the males in their blood; indeed every clan is a matriarchy ruled by an alpha female. The hyena vagina is actually sealed shut, so one consequence of this is that 1 in 10 females actually die during childbirth.
As for the reputation for cackling, hyenas don’t actually laugh because they’re happy. The cries that sound like laughter are actually signs of agitation and aggression, especially during feeding.
Speaking of feeding, this is what hyena poop looks like. It’s totally white. Why? Because they eat EVERYTHING – including bones.