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Outdoors just for kids 1-12-12

Hyenas are smart, tough animals that live in Africa, the Mideast and India. Although they resemble dogs, they are more closely related to cats.

Known as scavengers that eat animals killed by other predators, they are also smart enough to kill animals on their own, often hunting in packs like wolves. Big hyenas can weigh up to 190 pounds.

Hyenas are very vocal, which is why laughter became associated with them.

There are three species of hyenas living today: spotted, brown and striped. You may have seen them represented in the animated movie “The Lion King.”

Hyenas often live in large groups of up to 80 individuals, called clans. But they often break off into smaller groups to hunt or explore. It’s when they are in smaller groups that they are most vulnerable to attack by other hyenas.

Like other animals, and even people, hyenas will consider their options when confronted with a challenge by an adversary — they run or fight. To decide what they will do, researchers found, hyenas can count the number of unfamiliar hyenas they hear to decide if they are outnumbered and should flee, or have their opponents outnumbered and instead should fight. When there are fights, the larger groups tend to win.

The researchers found that by playing recordings of unfamiliar hyenas, individuals or pairs were more likely to flee than groups of three hyenas or more.

“They’re more cautious when they’re outnumbered and take more risks when they have the numerical advantage,” said Sarah Benson-Amram of Michigan State University, who wrote about her research. “Hyenas appear to be as capable as chimpanzees or lions at assessing their advantage.”

Benson-Amram said that her findings support the idea that living in complex social groups — as hyenas, lions and chimpanzees do — is one of the keys to the evolution of big brains.

— Brett French,

Gazette Outdoors editor

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.