Hyena Laugh: Sounds And Why Do They Laugh

If there’s one thing people know about hyenas, it’s their laugh. This distinctive habit we see in stories and movies, but do hyenas laugh really?

Hyenas don’t laugh; they have a short-breath bark that appears to imitate the human giggle. Only the spotted hyena uses this sound. The other three species don’t laugh but have distinct sounds. People mistake the hyena laugh as an exclamation of pleasure, but it signifies danger.

This article will cover the real reasons behind the hyena laughing sound and how they communicate.

Hyena laughing while being groomed by another hyena

Why do Hyenas Laugh?

Hyenas have a distinct sound of short-breath barks, which to our ears is similar to a cackle. 

It is their primary method of communication and their actual voice. Unlike some other animals, they’re not mimicking their environments or, in this case, humans.

The hyena’s laugh may sound human, but it doesn’t hold the same meaning. 

It can be vocalized excitement, frustration, or panic. To the human ear, each type of laugh seems the same.

They usually laugh to call one another or relay information, mostly related to their finding food. Once a hyena has found carcasses or killed a prey, it will laugh to signal the clan.

While eating, there’ll be more laughing as they quarrel with one another to get more food. The males may laugh because of not getting enough food, while the females will laugh to say they won’t share yet.

When they meet, they acknowledge one another with small barks or groans. They also call their cubs with a distinct bark. 

Upon being attacked, there’ll be a lot of hysterical laughing, which is a call for help.

So, to humans, it may sound like they’re having fun in their dens. In reality, they could just be fighting with each other.

Hyena laughing close up

Do All Hyena Species Sound The Same?

Ironically, only one of the four hyena species laughs. However, people assume that all hyenas have the same habit.

Only the spotted hyena uses the famous laughing sound. It’s understandable that since it’s also the largest population, it’s more likely to be observed and easier to find.

So, the generalization must have come from it.

The other three species have unique sounds and don’t laugh. 

The Aardwolf, which only eats insects, communicates through barking, roaring, or clucking sounds. 

Next, the striped hyena, which is the smallest, talks by grunting or soft growls. 

Lastly, the brown hyena, which speaks the least, uses tiny squeaks, grunts, and growls.

All hyenas mostly communicate for greetings, meals, or danger. The sounds vary, but it isn’t humanly possible to understand unless you’re experienced with hyenas. 

Roxy the hyena "laugh" loudly in front of her meal

Do All Laughs Have The Same Meaning?

The laugh or sounds have distinct differences between them. Each variation of the sound means something different. 

There are two common interpretations of the spotted hyena laugh:

  • High-pitched: used for fear, submission to a superior, or warning.
  • Low-pitched: used to show anger; the louder the sound, the angrier the hyena.

There are other distinctions as well. 

The pitch of a call usually indicates the age of the hyena. Whereas the frequency shows its status or social rank in the clan. 

All species of hyenas use one or more of the 12 main vocalizations. Here are their explanations:

1. Giggle (Panic)

A high-pitched, disturbing sound caused by panic. It indicates that the hyena is fleeing an attack.  

2. Groan (Greeting)

It’s higher pitched than the human groan and is used as a greeting with another clan member in friendly meetings.

3. Growl (Fighting)

A shaky yet continuous noise. 

When fighting with an attacker, they growl before biting into them. A hyena’s jaw strength is incredible, so one bite could crush through the bones of its victim.  

4. Grunt (Acknowledgement)

A softer sound that doesn’t cause discomfort to the human ear. It’s used to acknowledge an unwanted or unknown hyena near them.

5. Soft-Grunt Laugh (Flee Predators or Attack)

This sound isn’t isolated; it’s produced in a quick series with a lower pitch than the usual grunt. 

When hyenas flee other predators (like lions or humans) or attack their prey, they continuously make this sound.

6. Loud Grunt-Laugh (Encountering Another Clan)

Hyenas can make this loud noise for up to 5 minutes. They use it to signal that they’ve encountered another clan of hyenas or a pride of lions. 

A spotted hyena laying on its back laughing

7. Low (Rival Predators)

It may sound like an odd name, but the low is a soft sound similar to the groan. It’s used when hyenas see rival predators but aren’t likely to attack. 

8. Soft Squeal (Greet or Acknowledgement)

It sounds similar to the whine hyenas but isn’t as sharp. After a hyena reunites with their clans, the adults and cubs acknowledge or greet them with it.  

9. Whine (Hungry or Attention)

The whine is a sound that cubs make. It’s sharp and can sound disturbing if you don’t know the source. 

When cubs want to be nursed or are hungry, they get their mothers’ attention with it. 

10. Yell (Hurt)

This hyena sound is the only one that relates to humans. They yell with a high pitch when they’ve been bitten or hurt by something. 

11. Whoop 

One of the most impressive sounds hyenas generate is this whoop. It is a continuous utterance that can last up to 2 minutes and be heard up to 5 miles away. 

It doesn’t have a particular reason or message; it’s a spontaneous occurrence. 

12. Fast Whoop (Attempt to Steal Hunt)

Similar to the whoop but with much more meaning. Right before a clan is going to attempt to steal another predator’s hunt, they communicate through shorter yet quicker whoops.

Hyenas laughing (and whooping, giggling, and grunting)

Final Thoughts On The Hyena Laugh

The mystery is solved; hyenas don’t laugh. However, to understand and keep up the tradition, it isn’t wrong to describe a hyena’s bark as a cackle or giggle. 

The human and hyena auditory systems are entirely different, so we relate their voice to whatever sounds familiar.

FAQs

Do All Hyenas Laugh?

All hyenas have different sounds to communicate, but only one of them does the famous laugh. The spotted hyena is known for its giggling-like bark.

Are Brown Hyenas Mute?

Brown hyenas are a quiet species, but they aren’t mute. They choose to be isolated and spend time in silence. When needed, they often communicate with low and soft sounds.

Do Hyenas Mimic Humans?

Hyenas do not have mimicking skills. They are thought to be imitating the human laugh, but their own sound seems familiar to the human ear.