what do you think i am some person who likes hyenas a whole lot OKAY LET’S TALK ABOUT HYENAS BECAUSE THEY’RE FUCKING INCREDIBLE
seriously look at that happy dumb face
First of all let’s clear up a common misconception right here right now hyenas ARE NOT CANINES. They are not at all related to wolves, dogs, and the like, despite the existence of the slightly similar-looking African wild dog. (CONVERGENT EVOLUTION.)
here’s a picture of an african wild dog though because they’re cute as heck
Do you know what suborder hyenas are in instead of caniformia? A fun little clade called FELIFORMIA.
That’s right you frickers hyenas are much more closely related to cats than to dogs.
But hyenas are not cats, as they’re not part of felidae- they’re in their own little clade called hyaenidae (wow original) that’s actually more closely liked with the mongoose and civet families than the cat family… but uh, I digress. THE IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER IS THAT IN THE LIFE OF PI BOOK A HYENA WAS CALLED A CANINE AND IT MADE ME UPSET OK BYE.
My personal bitterness aside, it’s also important to remember that there’s actually more than one species of hyena out there! In fact they were pretty big back in the day (Miocene-ish) they were one of the most successful groups of carnivores out there. Today there are four species left, the brown hyena, the striped hyena, the aardwolf, and the hyena we are probably the most familiar with, the spotted hyena.
i don’t think you realize the types of things you are missing if you only know about spotted hyenas
Of the four, the spotted hyena is the largest and the only highly social species. (The aardwolf is particularly odd in that it mainly subsists on termites and insect larvae.)
don’t be mean to me i only eat bugs
But we’re getting off track again let’s talk a bit more about the spotted hyena. Let’s talk about a couple more myths surrounding the spotted hyena, actually. First, the most obvious one, and the one that I hope is getting more debunked in the general public, is that hyenas are primarily scavengers. WRONG! In fact they kill their own food around 80-95% of the time, and have a higher successful kill rate than lions (but so does everyone, guys lions kind of suck at their jobs).
Okay then let’s talk about hyena ‘laughter.’
Here’s a video of a pair of hyenas ‘laughing’ as they fight over a scrap of skin. Now, regardless of what the sounds they are making sound like, it should be obvious from their behavior that the ‘laughing’ is not a positive sound- in fact, it is a sound that hyenas make when they are anxious or afraid, especially when they are being chased or are in a tense situation. This is why they often make this sound when they are in a group feeding on a kill.
Hyena vocalization is actually a really cool area of study because they have so many different types and so much of it is individualized and can give information on an individual… but that is a different article friends (and one that many people with more expertise than me have written extensively about).
Let’s talk about another myth that actually not too many people outside of science know (and a lot of people IN science are just starting to realize is wrong).
For a long time scientists thought that hyenas only had one baby at a time on average because only one would show up out of the den.
oh look. just one baby.
Then they noticed that hyenas in captivity normally had twins. Hmm. Then they noticed that a lot of the time same-sexed pairs of babies would fight almost as soon as they were born (spotted hyenas are born with eyes open and with both canines and incisors out and ready to use). HMM.
So basically, what they appeared to be seeing was a little phenomenon called obligate infanticide. As in, KILL YOUR DOUBLE.
This is a pretty common and depressing reproductive strategy among some species of birds (by the way, the bald eagle is one of them, way to go America). Here’s mama eagle’s thought process: I’ll just have a bunch of eggs because who knows if they’ll all hatch, right? Oops! They all hatched and I can’t find enough food to feed them all. That’s okay, though, because I will be a good mama and WAIT PATIENTLY FOR THEM TO MURDER EACH OTHER.
(Do you realize how fucked up nature is though like we’re not going to talk about coot parenting strategies which are awful even for me and I consider myself pretty jaded on the natural front.)
Ok, so people thought that this was what was going on with hyenas. Which makes sense, because honestly it’s hard as fuck for female hyenas to give birth without having stillborns because of their special genitalia (which we will get to ha ha).
But in recent times people have found more evidence that this is NOT what’s going on. They’ve found that siblicide usually occurs when hyena cubs are quite a bit older and is due less to primal infant rage and more to a dearth of resources. Mom has less milk, and the stronger cub will fight the other one to get better access to it. So less of a “there can be only one” and more of a “i’m fucking thirsty QUIT HOGGIN THE NIP”
So yeah, quite a bit less dramatic. I mean, I really would have liked to write a sentence like “SPOTTED HYENAS ARE BORN WHEN THEY TEAR THROUGH THEIR MOTHER’S GENITALIA AND ENGAGE IN A MORTAL BATTLE WITH THEIR TWIN” but it’s really not quite true even if it is a cool sentence.
Alright myths out of the way. I wanted to talk a bit about the high social intelligence of hyenas (THEY CAN OUTPERFORM CHIMPS ON SOME SOCIAL TASKS DID U KNOW THIS) but this post is already getting a bit longggg so I will just include a link to a relevant lit review in the sources bit.
BECAUSE I THINK THIS POST WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT DICKS. In other words, the hyena pseudo-penis. (Warning: pictures of hyena dongs and clitorises coming your way.)
So here’s a question for you folks. Male or female?
How about this one?
OR THIS ONE
The answer, of course, is that I really don’t have a frickin’ clue myself.
(I THINK they are all females, though, because it’s actually pretty hard to find a picture of a male hyena penis.)
It is PRETTY DIFFICULT to tell the difference between male and female spotted hyena genitalia (the females of other hyena species do not have pseudo-penises, by the way). Not only is the pseudo-penis, which is an extension of the clitoris, almost as long and often thicker than the male penis, they also have a fused labia that resembles a scrotum. So yeah. There it is. And yes, these pesudo-penises can get erect and often do in social situations. It’s a submissive signal.
The best part about all this is that nobody really has a clue as to why the spotted hyena has evolved in this way. Oh, there are theories, but none of them can really explain the extreme length (ha ha) evolution has gone to here to produce a penis facsimile. And while there are a couple other mammals out there with psuedo-penises (squirrel monkeys, for example) the spotted hyena is the only one that also has a fused labia.
Real quick let’s look at a diagram of what a female spotted hyena’s reproductive system looks like.
Remember when I mentioned that hyenas have a lot of stillborns? That’s why. Death during birthing is also common, especially for first-time mothers. The offspring really do have to tear through part of the clitoris, afterwards leaving it permanently split. I think everyone’s genitals are hurting right now, so I’ll move on.
The first major theory as to why the female spotted hyena would evolve such a phallus was that the species just needed to be more aggressive to hunt/socialize/whatever, so females were bathed in testosterone in the womb and became really fierce penis-weilding ladies. GRR! MAN HORMONES.
Of course, this doesn’t really account for why a) female spotted hyenas are larger and more aggressive than males as a rule and b) the fact that the female hyena’s pseudo-penis starts developing in the womb BEFORE the introduction of fetal androgens (male-making hormones, basically).
Oh yeah, and neither weight nor androgen concentration correlates much with an individual’s dominance rank (it has more to do with who your parents are; dominance rank is passed down from mother to child).
There’s another theory that I like a bit better that suggests that as the social structure of hyenas developed, females needed a way to control which males they were mating with. Another fact about the pseudo-penis is that it makes forced sex impossible. In fact, in order to have sex, a female has to roll back the front of her clitoris like a shirtsleeve (you don’t know how sad I am that I couldn’t find a picture of this) to allow the male’s penis to gain access. And it can still take some maneuvering.
wHERE’S THE OPENING DANGIT
So basically, you can’t force a female hyena to have sex if she doesn’t want to. This gives her complete control over who she mates with, and it means that the male hyenas have to go for a different strategy to have reproductive success: flowers and chocolates. Nah, I kid. It’s more like the male has to be as submissive and as sweet as he can to the females to establish a relationship in order to secure mating rights with her. Each time. As hyenas don’t form lasting pair-bonds (they are as promiscuous as cats!) it’s anything goes the next time the female comes into heat.
Also, female hyenas prefer to mate with outsiders to their clan (spotted hyenas tend to be patrilocal) rather than males they have grown up with. This is probably to reduce the prevalence of inbreeding.
Also, hyenas have a lot of same-sex sexual behavior. (I had to say it.)
Even with increased female reproductive control as a plausible reason why hyenas might evolve the pseudo-penis and hyper-dominant behavior, it still doesn’t answer the question as to WHY this control was necessary in hyenas (and not other species). I haven’t read anything that gives a strong answer (if you have, I’d love to read it!), but my guess is that at some point in evolutionary history spotted hyenas underwent a reproductive crises, possibly with infanticide or inbreeding. Think about the way lion prides operate- if a new male comes in, he kills all the previous cubs. And remember, hyenas are still promiscuous and do NOT form mated pairs, even within the space of one session of heat.
If this was going on in early hyena society, perhaps the route they chose, rather than having a harem-structure to their society (where at least there’s only one male at a time), was to limit the proliferation of aggressive males by denying them access to reproductive sex. And maybe these females did better off with their offspring, and went the dominant female/submissive male route in the end.
IDK that’s just a thought I’m throwing out there. The point is, hyenas are cool and this post got too dang long.
and the penis jokes continue to make themselves
SOURCES AND MORE INFO
On carnivora phylogeny (yeah it’s wikipedia idgaf)
Hyena giggles and social status
Factors affecting hyena hunting success
Revised hypothesis on why siblicide occurs
Social intelligence in the spotted hyena
The “don’t get mean, get social (with your penis)” paper