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A hyena is an animal in the family Hyaenidae, native to Africa and Asia. The most famous representative of this family is probably the spotted hyena, also known as the laughing hyena, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa. Animals in the Hyaenidae family at one point extended as far as North America, with a great deal of diversity between species, but their range and diversity have greatly declined since their heyday over one million years ago, in part due to competition from canids.
Hyenas have a very canine appearance, despite the fact that they are actually more closely related to cats. They have distinctive short rear limbs which give their bodies a sloping appearance, and very strong jaws which can be used to crack open large bones or to grip the throats of prey. Hyena hair is coarse and sandy to brown in color, with many species having stripes or spots for camouflage, and some having ruffs of thicker hair around their necks.
These animals may live alone or in large groups of related individuals. Hyena society is matriarchal in nature, with female hyenas being particularly famous for their unusually enlarged and protruding urogenital tracts, which cause them to resemble males superficially. There is very little sexual dimorphism in hyenas, and it can be difficult to tell males and females apart from a distance unless one is observing a group of the animals over a prolonged period of time, which offers opportunities to see males and females behave differently.
Most hyenas are scavengers, and they may compete for fresh kills with other carnivores in their habitat, including lions, in addition to eating the carrion they find. Like other scavengers, hyenas have a very high tolerance for spoiled food, and a very diverse diet which allows the animals to adapt to available food sources. Hyenas will also bring down live prey, working cooperatively as a group to select a target. They have also been known to attack humans and carry off young children.
Historically, hyenas have been viewed with some suspicion. The distinctive maniacal laughter of the spotted hyena is quite eerie and was very unsettling for many Europeans when they first encountered the animals, and some people associated hyenas with ill fortune or witchcraft because they raided graves for food. Other myths suggested that the animals could imitate human voices to lure people away from the safety of a campfire, marking targets for death by calling their names.