The Spotted Hyena’s She-PenisPosted: January 11, 2012
Some may say my “juvenile and sophomoric” blog on male genitalia is evidence of a “sexist, chauvinistic mind at work”; or worse, “the ravings of a perverted narcissist”. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion. To put to rest any doubts you may have and to prove I can give the fairer sex a fair shake, this week I am going to focus on the female spotted Hyena, and its pseudo-penis.
The genitalia of the male spotted hyena (crocuta crocuta) is rather humdrum. It’s your standard issue mammalian penis, like what you see when your dog rolls on his back. The surprising thing is that female spotted hyenas appear to have a penis, too. In fact, it’s what zoologists prefer to call “pseudo-penis,” and what she’s swinging around is an over-sized clitoris shaped and positioned like the male’s penis and even fully erectile, but functionally similar to a vagina: she urinates, copulates, and gives birth all through her pseudo-penis.
The best explanation for the presence of the pseudo-penis is that it is a byproduct of a high dose of prenatal male hormones pups receive from their mothers which is thought to increase their aggressiveness (Live Science 2006), a definite selective advantage for a scavenger species like the spotted hyena. Apparently enough of an advantage to overcome to obvious mechanical difficulties of penis-in-penis style mating, and the potentially fatal difficulties of penis birthing: 9-18% females die during their first birth, and of those that survive lose 60% of their first born young (Frank 1997). But they soldier on; see the video for a demonstration.
After seeing spotted hyenas in action, you have to admit there is something rather endearing about them. Almost like a pair naive teenagers, swimming with hormones, unsure what to do when upon disrobing they realize they are equipped the same way, and so, shrugging their shoulders, they just do what seems right and natural. Of course for the hyenas it is right and natural, and beautiful. But painful, too–physically–for the hyena. It probably hurts in a way that is so profound, they are changed for life. At least that’s what I can only speculate.
Frank, L.G. 1997. Evolution of genital masculinization: why do female hyaenas have such a large ‘penis’? Trends Ecol Evol., 12(2): 58-62.
Live Science. 2006. The Painful Realities of Hyena Sex [online].