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A hyena question
July 13, 2010
11:03 pm
Immigrant
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I just finished the Credo. It's an absorbing and somewhat unsettling book, perhaps because it begins so innocently. Since you unabashedly invite your readers to come here, I assume you won't mind answering a question or two about it ...

Near the beginning of the book, in Aidan's 'research paper,' he speaks at length about hyena biology and behavior in order to describe gnolls. How much of his description is authoritative, and how much is embellished in order to set up the story ?

I confess I know little about hyenas besides their terrible reputation and odd bits from wildlife documentaries, and your description is quite at odds with that.

 

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July 15, 2010
1:38 pm
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D:

You're correct: hyenas have an absolutely terrible reputation, none of which is justified. Frankly, if they were human, they could sue both Disney and Hemingway for libel!

To answer your question: everything I wrote about spotted hyena biology and behavior in The Gnoll Credo is absolutely truthful to the best of my knowledge. Hyenas are excellent hunters, and are successful more often than lions. They hunt by persistence, not by ambush. Their society is strongly matriarchal, with a clear and established dominance order, and rank is inherited from one's mother. And though they will scavenge food when available, they hunt and kill 60-90% of their caloric intake (depending on region)...while lions only hunt and kill ~40%, stealing the rest from hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards.

(Interestingly, the spotted hyena appears to have originally been a scavenger, like the striped and brown hyenas, which evolved into a predator yet kept its ability to crush and digest bone.)

I intend to write a FAQ about this someday, but for now, the Wikipedia article is solid and well-referenced: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotted_hyena

You might also read the Hyena Research Project's blog. The Holekamp Lab is responsible for much of what we know about hyenas:

http://msuhyenas.blogspot.com

Gnoll behavior and biology is very similar to spotted hyena behavior and biology. The masculinized genitalia and aggressive female behavior are absolutely not my invention (contrary to the intimations of a couple reviewers): see this snarky yet informative National Geographic clip. Even lifelong naturalists were convinced up until the 1970s that spotted hyenas were hermaphrodites!

Additionally, male spotted hyenas do disperse from their birth pack some time after they mature: females will almost never mate with males born into their own pack.

There are, however, a few differences between spotted hyenas and gnolls. Hyena butter is indeed a terrible smell, but those who have smelled it (I haven't) claim it is more akin to bad soap. Most importantly, it has absolutely no curative properties, and would likely cause a massive infection with blood poisoning. And while the spotted hyena's greeting ceremony involves extensive mutual sniffing of genitalia that can last nearly a minute, it is not (as far as I know) used to reinforce dominance...it appears to generally be initiated by the submissive partner and involves no licking.

 

There's a lot more to write, including lots of video links...but this should get you started.

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August 2, 2010
7:43 pm
Immigrant
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It certainly seems you've done your research !

I admit to a degree of surprise ... apparently truth really is stranger than fiction, at least when it comes to hyenas. Is that what made you choose to write a book about hyena-people ? Are there other books about them that helped you build your conception of gnolls, or is it entirely your own ?

I ask because I've read many fantasy novels containing non-human societies. Usually the descriptions are simply unworkable: 'Who feeds all these warriors ?' often comes to mind. Of the remainder, most authors seem to concentrate on the details of the power structure, with a sidelong mention of one sport and one artistic or craft skill to typify the race ('the Threngia enjoy bufwa, a sport similar to rugby, and macrame'). Only rarely do I receive any description that causes me to feel as if I'm learning about anything other than an obscure human tribal culture, tarted up in monster suits.

Congratulations on the release of your book !

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August 9, 2010
12:16 pm
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D:

The initial reason I chose hyena-people was that no one else had written a book about them, so I didn't have to swim against the current of existing expectations. Imagine trying to write a book about wolf-men...there are entire publishers (White Wolf) devoted to werewolves, and there are centuries of mythology about them.

In contrast, there are exactly zero books about gnolls.  (I checked.)  They're cannon fodder for role-playing games -- basically a furry orc -- and when supplements or backstory to those games is written, gnolls are simply generic evil monsters.  (It's both funny and sad that most of the pictures of 'gnolls' I've found were obviously drawn by someone who has never even looked at a picture of a spotted hyena!)

So when I met Gryka not long into the writing process, I was able to simply converse with her, write down events as they occurred, and not worry about whether I was conflicting with existing expectations.  What I wrote initially was compatible with what we know about spotted hyena biology and social structure, and what I learned about spotted hyenas during the process of writing gave Gryka, and the book in general, a richness and consistency of background that I'm proud of.

It also avoided the problem you mention, where fantasy writers simply put together a few random human skills and use them to stereotype an entire race.  Your quote about the "Threngia" made me laugh: do you mind if I quote you in a blog post about that someday?

Finally, the Hyaena Research Group is a great place to learn about all four types of hyenas.

 

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August 30, 2010
10:35 pm
Immigrant
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I apologize for the delay. Yes, do quote me if you so desire, but please omit any particulars. 'Doubletime' will suffice.

Now that you mention it, I see that most gnoll illustrations bear little resemblance to hyenas. 'Ugly werewolf' seems most popular.

You speak of Gryka very personally here, as if she is known to you, or perhaps even a friend of yours. Is that an artifact of the creative process ?

 

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September 6, 2010
12:31 am
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D:

Thank you!  I'll credit you appropriately.

Knowing Gryka was not an artifact of the creative process: it was the cause of the creative process.  She is the reason The Gnoll Credo exists.  Had I not met her, I would have had the first page (the Credo itself), a few pages of notes towards Aidan's paper, and little else.  But once I met her, speaking to her, learning from her, and writing her story became the most important thing in my life.  The result of that time was the first draft of the book.

 

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January 19, 2011
9:43 am
Near Tulsa
Wanderer
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Hi, I haven't read the book yet. I did read the teaser. I found your site through the "Free the Animal" blog.

I read this article a while back about humans and wolves.

https://www.uwsp.edu/psych/s/275/Science/Coevolution03.pdf

I don't remember if it was mentioned in the article, but I have read that scientist have confirm humans evolved closely with canines because we have tapeworms. They suspect that humans shared saliva with hyenas and/or wolves while dining on carcasses. Did this play any into your book?

 

I look forward to reading your book in the near future.

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January 19, 2011
7:22 pm
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Bodhi:

That's a very interesting article, with an intriguing hypothesis.  I find it totally plausible that wolves would have affected human behavior to a significant degree, just as humans dramatically affected wolf behavior.  

The authors propagate a number of misconceptions, though, which doom the paper as a whole for me.  First, they dismiss spotted hyenas as scavengers, which is totally untrue.  Second, they speak as though wolves were the only top-level carnivore in Eurasia...when spotted hyenas (misleadingly called 'cave hyenas') were also a dominant, high-level carnivore throughout Eurasia.  Spotted hyenas first evolved near India, and only disappeared from Asia after the domestication of wolves by humans.

In fact, there is a strong theory that humans didn't come to North America during previous interglacials because there were too many hyenas in Siberia -- with whom we competed directly for food, the spotted hyena being the only animal besides a human with sharp rocks who can break open large bones and eat the nutritious marrow within.  We also competed for den sites: many caves in Europe and Asia show evidence of alternating occupation by humans, bears, and hyenas!  The theory further states that the combined forces of humans and semi-domesticated wolves were necessary to defeat the hyenas and allow migration through Beringia to the USA.

Finally, spotted hyenas have a more complex social organization than wolves...one which is much closer to chimpanzees (and, presumably, ancestral humans) than wolves.

So the interesting question remains: why were wolves domesticated, and not spotted hyenas?  Chew on that for a while.

Then there is the authors' uncritical acceptance of 'Man the Scavenger', a theory disproved by recent isotopic analysis (European hominid protein intake was indistinguishable from top-level carnivores like wolves and hyenas), as well as by common sense.  Fresh carcasses don't just lay around: they get eaten by lions and hyenas, often before the sun comes up.  So if you believe 'Man the Scavenger', you also have to believe that humans could drive away lions and hyenas...but weren't themselves capable of killing a wildebeest.  That seems unlikely.

Finally, like most people, they ignore bonobos, the chimp's peaceful hippie cousins.  Anyone using chimp behavior as a model for proto-humans also needs to take bonobos into account, because both arose from our common ancestor.

Thank you, though, for bringing that article to my attention: it raises some interesting questions, which will no doubt influence my thinking.  I may even write an article about it someday, since I've written so much already...

 

As far as the tapeworm fact: no, that specific fact wasn't in the forefront of my mind, but I was absolutely conscious of the fact that humans and spotted hyenas have been directly competing for food for millions of years...and canids, too, once they found their way to Africa.

Thank you for taking the time to comment here and elsewhere!  Please share your thoughts on TGC once you've read it.

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January 24, 2011
8:30 am
Near Tulsa
Wanderer
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January 19, 2011
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Sorry for the delay in responding, I just got back from a ski trip to Angel Fire, New Mexico.

Thank you for your reply to my article. I have my book on order and I'm looking forward to reading it. Your reply has me interested in learning more about hyenas. They sound like really interesting creatures.

 

So what is your hypothesis to the question you posted above:

 

"why were wolves domesticated, and not spotted hyenas?"

 


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January 25, 2011
11:42 pm
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Bodhi:

Why wolves, and not spotted hyenas?  I'm not sure, but I have some ideas:

-Wolf packs in nature are basically an extended family unit, and as such, tend to involve less infighting than spotted hyena packs, which involve multiple matrilines and constant jockeying for dominance.  So it's easier for a wolf to accept you as a pack leader than for a hyena: even Kevin Richardson says that if you work with a pack of spotted hyenas, you WILL be periodically bitten, and it will require stitches.  And human hair has been found in fossil spotted hyena dung.

-They're also much bigger than wolves, particularly the extinct Eurasian subspecies, which reached over 200 pounds!

-Wolves track by scent, and are therefore more useful to humans than spotted hyenas, which usually hunt by sight.

-Humans (with stone tools) and hyenas are the only two animals that can crack open big bones to get at the marrow, so we would have been directly competing for food for millions of years.  I think the enmity becomes instinctual after so long.  This is most likely why we find the laughter and whooping of hyenas so much more unpleasant and chilling than the howling of wolves.

Apparently striped hyenas are tameable, though.  And it is possible to tame spotted hyenas (particularly males, which are smaller and less aggressive), though they're still wild animals and must be treated with respect.

Pet striped hyenas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEji53sEQDw

Pet spotted hyena (still growing):

 

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September 6, 2011
4:50 am
SF Bay Area
Gnoll
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September 6, 2011
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Hi there!

 

You were curious about what a hyena's 'paste' (That's the hyena butter) smells like?

 

Musky. 
It's the scent of lye soap on old leather and dust from horses and a
long long ride.  It isn't an unpleasant smell at all.  Just very musky.

 

Their dung also has next to no scent, and is often used for chalk (Due to the high bone content!)

 

I
very much look forward to readin the Gnoll Creedo.  As a fan of Gnolls,
the Ajaba, and hyena in general, it's nice to see someone who put some
research into their book!

 

(I'm a bit of a hyena expert!  ^_^;)

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Canis Crocuta Dirus The Dire Hyenawolf.
September 8, 2011
12:48 pm
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PDW:

Very interesting!  Just where did you get the opportunity to smell hyena butter?

And yes, I spent a lot of time researching gnolls.  Since TGC is the first book about them, I felt a heavy responsibility to get the facts about them down as completely and correctly as I could.  

First, careless writing has a way of biting writers in the ass with awkward inconsistencies later on.  Also, during the entire time I was trying to get it published, I was terrified that another book would come out and I'd have written the second book about gnolls.  Given the propensity of the publishing industry to churn out formulaic retreads of anything even remotely successful ("Hey, Stan Nicholls' "Orcs" sold pretty well, let's pay some hack to rewrite it with gnolls"), this was a distinct possibility.

Fortunately, this didn't happen -- and The Gnoll Credo has defined gnolls in the literary world.

This is doubly important because spotted hyenas are such unjustifiably hated and despised animals, and the D&D conception (evil demon-worshippers) is not terribly helpful either.  In reality, Crocuta crocuta are slower, smaller, and less powerful than lions.  Yet they not only survive, they thrive in much larger numbers than lions, are more successful hunters than lions, and they survive in places lions can't.  I think this is due to their absolutely, brutally efficient social system: while male lions waste most of their time and energy fighting each other and killing others' half-grown cubs, the rigid spotted hyena hierarchy means they spend very little time or energy actually fighting.  And infanticide happens early, before any great degree of parental investment.

They're fascinating, and I'm proud to know them.

JS

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September 15, 2011
7:24 pm
SF Bay Area
Gnoll
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September 6, 2011
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Hey there!

 

I got the chance to smell it at the
UCBerkeley Hyena Project.  It's where such awesome 'yeeners as Turbo and
Zephyr who live at the San Diego zoo come from.  (I knew them before
they were famous!)

 

I've been into Hyenas since...well, the Lion King.  >.>;

 

I've
been into the Ajaba (Whte Wolf's excuse for Hyena...) since I found
them in the White Wolf manuals.  It's why I've written up my own species
that fit into an anthropomorphi world of tribal animal-creatures. 
Another friend of mine is working on a world of anthro animals, and is
letting me write up the Hyena tribe, which, makes me happy!  But haven't
read too much about Gnolls, which is why I will be excited to get your
book for my birthday!  ^_^

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Canis Crocuta Dirus The Dire Hyenawolf.
September 16, 2011
12:57 am
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PDW:

Does the Project have visiting hours or opportunities?  I don't live in the Bay Area but sometimes travel there on business.

There's not a lot of reading to be done about gnolls: one article from Dragon magazine about roleplaying them in D&D, Paul Haynie's short historical booklet about how the modern conception of gnolls evolved, and some bad online fiction...the notable exception being Paul Haynie's few short stories, found here under the months of June and July, and scattered haphazardly amongst his other work.  (I don't count Terry Pratchett because his "gnolls" aren't gnolls at all.)

How long do you have to wait for your birthday?

JS

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September 16, 2011
11:53 am
SF Bay Area
Gnoll
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J. Stanton said:

PDW:

Does the Project have visiting hours or opportunities?  I don't live in the Bay Area but sometimes travel there on business.

There's not a lot of reading to be done about gnolls: one article from Dragon magazine about roleplaying them in D&D, Paul Haynie's short historical booklet about how the modern conception of gnolls evolved, and some bad online fiction...the notable exception being Paul Haynie's few short stories, found here under the months of June and July, and scattered haphazardly amongst his other work.  (I don't count Terry Pratchett because his "gnolls" aren't gnolls at all.)

How long do you have to wait for your birthday?

JS


 

Y'know, I'm not sure, I've never asked.  I know they've had kids up there before for tours, and a couple of other big names have hung about up there.  ILM and Disney are a few.

 

I'm considering making a Gnoll persona for myself.  I've got a Hyena, (Named Nweka), but I think a Gnoll would fit me well.  Hm.  I can't wait till I lose weight so I'll looke AWESOME in a Gnoll costume.  If a bit short.  I"m 5'2".

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Canis Crocuta Dirus The Dire Hyenawolf.
August 26, 2014
9:20 pm
Kathy Kellogg
Guest

I draw a comic strip using spotted hyenas as the main characters. When I started the strip ten years ago, I knew very little about hyenas, but I've educated myself (and great heavens, they are God's gift to cartoonists!)

I was curious as to what "hyena butter" smelled like, and am very grateful to Prima Dire Wolf for supplying a more comprehensive answer than "cheap soap." I have a gag in the comic that I'm working on that needed that information.

The more I learn about spotted hyenas, the more impressed with them I've become.

Best wishes,

K. Garrison, "Carry On"

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August 29, 2014
11:48 am
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Kathy:

Unlike PDW, I still haven't ever smelled hyena butter...but I can verify that their fur is just as coarse and scratchy as it looks.

Spotted hyenas are indeed impressive creatures. As I noted above, they not only survive, they thrive in much larger numbers than lions, are more successful hunters than lions, and they survive in places lions can't -- despite being smaller than lions, slower than lions, and reliably losing any one-on-one fights with lions. (It takes about four hyenas to chase off a female lion, and they will almost never take on a male lion because, no matter how badly they outnumber them, it's nearly guaranteed to result in the death of at least one hyena.) In fact, lions are entirely parasitic on hyenas in locations like the Ngorongoro Crater, where instead of hunting, lions simply scavenge 90% of what they eat from hyena kills!

What makes spotted hyenas even more interesting, though, is that it's not a straight sex role reversal. The males must hunt too -- in fact, they must hunt more often, because the females always eat first, and frequently a male won't get to eat more than a few bites (or at all) of his own kill! This is where reality, and my conception of gnolls, differs from (for instance) Ursula Vernon's Digger, in which male hyenas basically take the female role as house-husbands. (Note: I still love Digger.)

Thanks for sharing! I'm glad you find them as inspiring as I do.

JS

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May 9, 2016
2:56 pm
tcsaryk
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