Meet the spotted hyena

Spotted hyena. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr.

It’s Women’s History Month, and this past Tuesday was International Women’s Day. What better way to celebrate than by learning about a species with super cool females: the spotted hyena.

Spotted hyenas are the largest members of the hyena family. Although they look and act more like dogs, spotted hyenas are actually more closely related to cats. And, important for our purposes, the females play an integral role in spotted hyena clans. Read on to find out more about these cool carnivores!

  • Great hunter
    • Forget what you may have heard before: spotted hyenas are not primarily scavengers. They are hunters and hunt just as much as lions do. They are built to be able to chase down their prey: their proportionally large heart makes up around 1% of their body weight and gives them endurance during hunting chases. Of course, a spotted hyena won’t pass up a free meal if they find a carcass. They have super strong jaws that can break open bones and a strong stomach that can digest all parts of a body. A spotted hyena won’t waste anything, eating hair, skin, and bones.
What a good hunter. Photo from Wikipedia.
  • Intelligent and social
    • Spotted hyenas are quite smart, with complex social behaviors. They live in large fission-fusion clans – the larger clan can be up to 80 individuals, but individuals are usually found by themselves or in smaller groups. This social structure is very similar to that found in baboons and macaques: a large group size, hierarchical structure, and lots of social interactions between related and unrelated group-mates. These complex social behaviors are thought to have driven the spotted hyena’s general intelligence. One study found that spotted hyenas outperformed chimpanzees in cooperative problem-solving tasks. They could do this without prior training, something that chimpanzees struggle with. Spotted hyenas even seem to be able to count! For instance, they will decide whether to fight or be peaceful with a rival clan based on the number of other hyenas. When deciding what clan to join, males will always go for the one with the least number of other males.
  • Females run the clan
    • Spotted hyena clans are a matriarchy – females are dominant to the males. This due to the high levels of androgens (the class of hormones that includes testosterone) female hyenas have in their bodies. In fact, spotted hyena females have testosterone levels as high as those found in males. High-ranking females will also provide their offspring with higher levels of androgens during the final stages of pregnancy than lower-ranking ones. These high levels of androgens lead to females being more aggressive than the males and placing them clearly higher in the social dominance structure. Even the youngest, lowest-ranked female is a higher rank than the adult males. In addition, female cubs take the rank of their mother. The cub of a high-ranking female is just one step lower in rank than her mother.
  • Females have a very male-like sexual organ
    • I’ll just cut to the chase: female spotted hyenas have a pseudo-penis. Basically, their clitoris is so large that it looks like a penis. They also have a false scrotum and testes, and the pseudo-penis can be erect. All of this means that it’s very hard to visually tell males from females based on their genitalia.
    • But why? There are a few hypotheses on why female spotted hyenas have this large, pseudo-penis. First, they may have evolved as a submission signal. Hyenas will greet each other by showing off their erect penis, with an erect penis a sign of submission. In this way, the pseudo-penis can serve as a signal of a hyena’s social status. The pseudo-penis could also just be the by-product of the high levels of androgens female hyenas have. Finally, sexual mimicry may have driven the development of a pseudo-penis. When spotted hyenas are born, males and females look virtually identical. This could offer some protection to the female cubs – high-ranking adult females are known to kill the female offspring of lower-ranking females. But males, given their low rank, are not a threat to the females in charge. If a high-ranking female can’t tell a male from a female cub, the female cub is more likely to survive to adulthood.
  • Giving birth
    • So females have a pseudo-penis (aka, huge clitoris) and false scrotum and testes covering the vaginal opening. In fact, spotted hyenas are the only mammalian species to lack a vaginal opening. This makes reproduction…complicated. First, the female retracts her clitoris into her body (one site describes it as “turning a sock inside out”). Once the clitoris is out of the way, the male must line his penis up with the opening by sliding underneath her. Now that everything is in position, the male can proceed to mount the female like other animals do and sex takes place.
    • But of course this is only half the equation – females have to now give birth. This is, of course, difficult as they don’t have a vaginal opening. Instead, spotted hyenas give birth through their clitoris. Unfortunately, this birth canal is narrow (only about 1 inch across); it’s not uncommon for hyena babies to get stuck, suffocate, and die during the birthing process. First-time hyena mothers are also likely to die during birth. Even if the mother doesn’t die, her clitoris may rupture during birth and can take weeks to heal. So all-in-all, not a fun process.
Spotted hyena cubs. Photo from Wikipedia.
  • Well-developed cubs
    • Spotted hyenas give birth at the clan’s communal den or in a private den. These dens are usually the abandoned burrows of other animals, like warthogs and jackals. The low-ranking females are usually the ones giving birth in private dens, but they will bring their cubs to the communal den after a few days. Spotted hyenas typically give birth to two cubs. Unlike most carnivorous mammals, hyenas are born with open eyes and teeth. These teeth are quickly put to use: hyena cubs are aggressive and will begin attacking each other shortly after birth. These attacks can end in the death of the weaker cub, and an estimated 25% of all hyenas are killed by their sibling in their first month. Cubs continue to develop quickly and begin to hunt with the clan after just a year.

Unfortunately, portrayals of spotted hyenas do them a disservice. How often have hyenas been seen as dumb scavengers? Or cast as the villain in a story? The truth is that these animals are highly intelligent, socially complex hunters.

One more fun fact for you: spotted hyenas are also easily tamed (although you should never ever keep wild animals as a pet). Unfortunately, they are apparently nearly impossible to house train and their strength makes them difficult to keep. One hyena researcher, Hans Kruuk, had a tame hyena named Solomon for a while. Solomon, however, loved eating “cheese in the bar of the tourist lounge and bacon off the Chief Park Warden’s breakfast table.” With no door strong enough to hold him at bay, Solomon was eventually sent to live at the Edinburgh Zoo. But honestly, I don’t blame him: who doesn’t love cheese and bacon?


Wild Tomorrow Fund


San Diego Zoo


One response to “Meet the spotted hyena”

  1. […] the psuedo-penis that female spotted hyenas have? The enlarged clitoris that looks like a male penis? Well, spotted hyenas aren’t the […]

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