Discover Why All Spotted Hyenas Have External Genitalia

Studying the animal kingdom is fascinating. We have had the opportunity to see some of the most unusual evolutions and behaviors in wildlife during the years that we have interacted closely with it as well as from a distance. We witness spiders devouring one another after mating. We observe that ducks have evolved selectively for protective breeding. Even the chance to observe larger mammals interacting and reproducing is afforded to certain researchers.

An animal species goes above and above in one instance. Matriarchal in nature, hyenas forage in groups known as “cackles” or “clans.” These animals are unique from others in part because of their genitalia. We’re going to talk about the external genitalia that hyenas have today. We’ll begin with the hyena pack structure and then discuss how their genitalia affect their social hierarchy.

Specifically, we will examine the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), which is the most prevalent of the four hyena species.

Social Structure of Hyenas

A weird and intricate social structure that is closely related to hyena biology. Alpha females govern all hyena clans, which are matriarchal in nature. This is a true matriarchy; the alpha who controls the pack is not merely the strongest; rather, it is a lineage. There is a rigid and competitive power structure. Men are positioned at the base of the social hierarchy in this arrangement. Compared to the social arrangements of the majority of other animals, this stands in stark contrast. Below is an attempt at creating a thorough social rank. Remember the following inheritance guidelines: Mothers are ranked higher than their daughters, while younger daughters frequently surpass older ones.

Thus, the other mothers in the clan come after the alpha female leader. From there, let’s proceed in list style.

  • Alpha female
  • Female young of the alpha female
  • Mothers
  • Younger daughters
  • Older daughters
  • Clan-born males
  • Highest-ranking itinerant males
  • All other males

Hyena clans might have as many as 130 members altogether. Approximately 50 adult females and 40 adult males make up this structure normally, with the other members being the progeny of different sexes. When males reach adulthood at about 3.5 years old, they will migrate to different clans, but daughters often remain in their birth clan for the duration of their lives. When they do join a clan, these lone wanderers will find it difficult to fit in and usually wind up at the bottom of the hierarchy. Once he’s established himself, the nomadic guy can advance within the clan.

External Genitalia on Female Spotted Hyenas

It might be challenging to visually differentiate female spotted hyenas from males. Spotted hyenas are comparable in size and shape to each other, for starters. Generally speaking, females are slightly larger than males, though it can be difficult to see the difference with the unaided eye. Next, female hyenas’ reproductive organs have been “masculinized.” What is meant by this? The only other mammal in the world without an external vaginal entrance is the female hyena.

Female hyenas have elongated external clitorises that closely resemble the penises of their male counterparts in place of the traditional external vaginal entrance. This clitoris is called a “pseudo-penis” because it resembles a typical male hyena penis in both size and shape. The reproductive and urinary systems are combined to form the hyena pseudo-penis. The hyena’s external clitoris is where she must urinate, reproduce, and give birth. This presents a few special difficulties, which we shall discuss in a later section.

Hyena females also have “pseudo-scrotums.” These outer labia are tissue-filled fake scrotums. The female hyena almost resembles the man in terms of the external clitoris and pseudo-scrotum. A physical examination is the only reliable way to determine a hyena’s sex, especially in its early years. Hyenas were once thought of as mythological hermaphrodites due to this phenomena. Before they could take closer looks at hyenas, experts in the field held this belief to be true for a number of years.

Let’s Discuss Hormones

Here, it’s not just about the reproductive organs that are visible from the outside. The different chemical and hormonal compositions of female hyenas also influence how they behave in the environment. On average, female hyenas generate around three times the amount of testosterone compared to their male counterparts. This distinction is particularly obvious for hyena clan mothers who are the alpha and high ranking members. A clan’s alpha female is a behemoth of hormones. What does this signify to us? Large levels of testosterone and other substances typically seen in males of a species are produced by female hyenas. Based on these hormones, the alpha female transmits her leadership via her family.

Let’s consult the National Science Foundation for additional details on this subject. A 2006 essay on their website described how hyena cubs are predisposed to succeed from the moment of birth. High concentrations of particular hormones provide a noticeable growth benefit to hyena cubs, especially females. Young hyenas become more forceful, aggressive, sexually mature, and driven due to these hormones. This is the first evidence that a mammal’s social position influences its behavior.

Further details on the extremely intricate hormonal and steroidal systems involved in the masculinization of female hyenas are provided by a paper titled “Phylogenetic Comparisons Implicate Sex Hormone-Binding Globuline in “Masculinization” of the Female Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)”. The study investigates the theory that these androgens and hormones have a direct impact on the morphology and social dominance of female spotted hyenas.

At What Cost?

The intricate biochemical makeup of spotted hyena reproductive systems has a detrimental effect on the females. When discussing this, let’s start by acknowledging that elevated testosterone levels have the potential to harm female reproductive systems and increase the risk and complexity of birthing. The difficulty of giving birth increases with hormone levels. Moreover, this effect accumulates over several pregnancies to the point that a mother hyena, especially the alpha, puts her own life and the lives of her possible offspring at danger each time she gives birth.

Let’s now examine the effects on the body. A female hyena gives birth via her external phallic clitoris, making the process extremely difficult and unpleasant. While the chance of losing cubs during childbirth decreases with subsequent pregnancies, it never completely vanishes for young females. This is particularly valid while giving birth to twins. Frequently, the first of the two cubs dies during birth. This results from the pseudo-penis’s lack of flexibility.

Typically, hyena litters consist of two to four cubs, with sixty percent of them not making it through the birthing process. We’ll examine the other challenges that young hyena cubs encounter in a later section.

Advantages of this structure

For the female hyenas, the news is not entirely bad. There are some clear benefits to the hormones that power pack construction and the pseudo-penis, even in spite of difficulties with reproduction and childbirth. For example, while selecting a mate, female hyenas become quite picky. They make use of this authority to weed out incestuous unions and choose partners who will strengthen the clan as a whole. Male hyenas have to search hard for a female mate because of these hormonal and physical power dynamics.

All in all, the social and mating system is created to be highly adapted to deliberate and selective breeding, which aims to ensure the survival and well-being of the hyena clan. Particularly male hyenas must adjust to these structures. As we previously discussed, male hyenas have a difficult time fitting in with their clan, and many of them end up being vagrants by adulthood. They look for different clans so that there is less chance of incestuous reproduction.

Is Breeding Complicated?

Hyena mating rituals are extremely intricate. First of all, it can take a very long time to form a pairing because female hyenas are very picky. It can actually take weeks, months, or even years for a hyena’s bond to form between a male and a female. The male hyena will essentially “shadow” the female hyena during this period and get to know her. These prolonged friendly encounters typically result in mates, and “friendly” males have a significantly higher chance of finding a partner and reproducing. Being friendly goes beyond being kind or affectionate.Male hyenas who exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors in general have a far higher chance of finding a partner. This feature of mate selection is thought to be a safety measure to preserve the matriarchal structure of hyena clans.

There are more failsafes available. Most of the time, female hyenas choose many partners and will mate with several males both before and after becoming pregnant. In one study, there was dual paternity in more over one-third of the 75 litters of hyena cubs. Less combative male hyenas who took the time to get to know females produced more litters than those who prioritized male supremacy.

Beyond the social politics, hyenas’ actual breeding process is intricate. The fact that the male and female have strange, exterior genitalia makes breeding incredibly difficult. In order to be more equipped for the future, young hyenas practice breeding for several months of their early lives. Indeed, practice makes perfect in this instance. In order to align his penis with the female hyena’s pseudo-penis, the male hyena needs to position himself precisely. It’s a really difficult viewpoint that takes a lot of commitment.

Challenges Faced by Hyena Cubs

A hyena cub faces additional difficulties if it survives the difficult and traumatic birthing process. Young hyenas attack one another as soon as they are born and have one of the highest rates of siblicide of any animal species. Since baby hyenas are born with whole sets of teeth and open eyes, they are prepared for battle from the start. Within the first few weeks of their life, newborn hyenas are thought to have a ten percent probability of dying from siblicide. This implies that a hyena cub’s sibling may kill one out of every ten of them.

This aggressiveness could be an early attempt to create pack hierarchy. Another possibility is that this aggressiveness is an adaptation learned through training for the harsh and violent experience of a hunting-feeding frenzy. All hyenas must be ready to battle for their food since the more aggressive hyenas take the food when they bring down prey. This also applies to keeping other predators at bay, such as lions, from stealing their meal.


After surviving their first several weeks of existence, the baby hyenas will face yet another challenge. Hyena rival females will kill their rivals’ young in an attempt to gain greater status within the group. Mother hyenas give their own cubs a great deal of love and care. They truly show far more love and care for their young than is typical of animals. Mothers act against other cubs to defend their own and to uphold or improve their social status. Behavioral ecologist Eli Strauss works at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For many years, he and his associates have been studying and observing hyenas. They discovered that the main cause of death for hyenas younger than a year old was infanticide. In this study, infanticide could be blamed for up to 21 of the 99 recorded deaths.

The similar technique is used by female hyenas to kill small animals. They crush the baby’s skull after grabbing its head in their mouths. Mothers will seemingly target any young hyena that isn’t their cub, therefore it appears that no hyena newborn is immune from this cruelty. Close family ties, such as the cubs of moms or siblings, are included in this.

Myths Regarding Hyenas

As we previously said, there was a widespread belief that hyenas were hermaphrodites. There are other myths regarding hyenas that we have grown to accept. We’ll start by discussing the misconception that hyenas are linked to dogs or cats. Hyenas aren’t actually more linked to one species than the other, so this is untrue. Although hyenas share traits with both of these familial species, they are so different that they belong to a different family, the Hyaenidae. Almost everything about this family is different from anything else in the animal kingdom. But if we’re going to make a comparison, we ought to consider the meerkat and the mongoose. These are the nearest relatives of the hyena.

Next, we frequently imagine hyenas to be timid animals that are readily intimidated by larger predators. This is frequently incorrect, whether it came from the film “The Lion King” or from our little knowledge of the animal. In actuality, hyenas rank among the strongest and most ferocious animals on the planet. Most people agree that the spotted hyena is among the most skilled hunters of its size.

In addition to being skilled hunters, people frequently confuse hyenas for scavengers. In fact, hyenas kill up to 95 percent of their prey in clans with robust hunting parties. Scavenging is a secondary survival strategy that is primarily used in places where food is scarce. Male itinerants also tend to scavenge rather than hunt.

Let’s now discuss their intelligence and humor. The pathetic, drooling cowards that humans portray hyenas as are not true to nature. In actuality, hyenas are incredibly intelligent animals who can solve even the most difficult puzzles and problems. We might assume that hyenas laugh uncontrollably in regards to their laughing. Actually, this laughing is focused and precise. Hyenas laugh mostly during a hunt, although they can also laugh in irritation or to ask for assistance.

In brief

To maintain the viability of their matriarchal social system, hyenas have evolved extremely unique physical and sexual characteristics. One example of how this adaptive pack order is felt by female hyenas is the development of a pseudo-penis. This effect has been produced over numerous generations by high amounts of androgens and hormones. This phenomena is specific to certain species of hyenas and is not present in any other mammal on the planet.