[This was written by Fran Siebrits and published online by Wild Magazine https://www.wildcard.co.za/, 2011]

The piercing giggle of a hyena does not only function to add that element of danger and excitement to a camping holiday. These giggles act much the same as a Rolex watch or other brand label, identifying the social status of an individual.
The laugh, or giggle, of a hyena is unique to each animal. They giggle when in a stressful or conflict situation. But research shows that these calls are not only a way of inter-species recognition, but are also used to show social hierarchy in a clan.
Each animal has a unique vocal quality, making it identifiable. Even one note of a giggle is enough to determine which hyena the call belongs to.

Giggles also tell the age of the hyena; the pitch of the giggle lowers with age.

What is even more interesting is that the laugh of a hyena tells others its social status. Dominant adults have a stable, confident giggle, while sub-dominant hyenas have a giggle which is more variable and not as prominent. For example, a “he-he-he-he” laugh will belong to a more dominant hyena as oppose to a “he-hi-ha-ha-he” laugh.

Of importance among hyena clans where the female is more masculine and therefore the most dominant, the giggle particularly communicates social stature.

“Giggles are a series of short staccato outbursts they make when they are not getting what they want,” said professor of psychology Frédéric Theunissen from the University of California, who has been researching the social hierarchy of hyenas. “In the vocalisations of subordinate animals, there is a level of frustration or stress that comes through in the variability of the giggles.”

The information which other hyenas in the clan obtain from an individual’s laugh is used to assess whether or not to collaborate with the animal producing the calls. In a conflict situation, the giggle may also be used to send a submissive signal from a weaker to a more dominant hyena, hence avoiding further drama.

There is much to be learned from hyenas. They have a simple and fun way of sifting through the riff-raff in a clan … by laughing. So the next time you are the object of that mean, insecure person’s amusement, giggle back with stability and confidence. They will get the signal!

Source: Published 30 March 2010, in the open-access journal BMC Ecology

Viewed on Science Daily [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100331091149.htm]