Hyenas give birth through their clitoris and other facts

The Lion King is one of my favourite Disney films EVAR. Possibly even my favourite, depending on whether I’m in more of an animal mood or a feminist mood (in the case of the latter, Mulan wins). Anyway, one of the reasons that the Lion King is so awesome, besides the amazing songs and the bit that everybody cries at, is these guys:

Shenzi, Banzai and Ed: Spotted hyenas

The hyenas! I just don’t think hyenas are featured enough in animated films. How else are we to know about their interesting anatomy, their unusual social structure and their high levels of social cognition?! I guess that leaves it down to losers like me to bring you this information, then. Because I think hyenas are a lot more interesting and intelligent than we give them credit for.

Hyenas are awesome. If you don’t believe me, I hope that you will once you read this post. There are three species of hyena in Africa: The spotted hyena, the striped hyena, and the brown hyena. Of these, the spotted hyena is the most common, and the ones that the Lion King trio were based on. I will mostly be referring to the spotted hyena throughout this post.

Brown hyena

So what are hyenas? Are they from the feline family, or the canines? Are they more cat or dog? Neither, actually. The hyenas are a family of their own, the Hyaenidae. Interestingly though, hyenas are actually more closely related to the mongoose (a biological family called Herpestidae) than to the cat or dog.  When you think of hyenas, you may automatically think of wily scavengers, waiting on a brave lion to make a kill then steal the scraps to feed themselves. This is not true: Hyenas hunt and kill about 90-95% of their food. Of course, they scavenge when the opportunity arises, but most carnivores do this and hyenas certainly hunt and kill their own prey more than they scavenge.

Striped hyena

Another interesting fact about hyenas is that the females are the dominant sex. This is fairly unusual in mammals. The females are bigger and stronger than the males and the hyena matriarchal social structure is fiercely strict: So much so that even an ickle baby female hyena is is automatically dominant over every adult male in the clan.

Female spotted hyenas also sport very, very long clitorises. The clitoris is so large (about 7 inches from the body!) that it is almost indistinguishable from a male penis. They also give birth through this clitoris, and so it may come as no surprise to learn that giving birth is extremely risky: Pushing a two-pound cub out of that tight squeeze means the female is prone to potentially lethal injuries. First-time mothers are particularly vulnerable to complications during childbirth: It is not unusual for them to die during the process.

Spotted hyena clitoris. You didn't see that in the Lion King, did you?

Spotted hyenas are incredibly intelligent. Their social intelligence is particularly striking. They even outperform chimpanzees on problem-solving tasks which measure group cooperation. In fact, in this particular task which involves two hyenas working together to pull ropes in order to get food, is carried out by spotted hyenas with up to 100% accuracy after a training trial. It seems that spotted hyenas are hard-wired experts at social cooperation. Not quite the laughing scavengers people often think about. Speaking of that laugh, it’s something I haven’t even mentioned yet but this video shows the typical noise quite nicely.

It’s not entirely understood what function this crazy vocalisation has, but it’s been suggested that the pitch of the “laugh” may communicate something about the spotted hyena’s social status. It’s also been suggested that the laugh could actually be a sign of frustration.

Summary:

1. Hyenas are not scavengers: They’re cool, clever, highly social animals
2. They live in clans which are ruled by the females
3. The females have HUGE clitorises
4. They make a funny laughing sound, but we’re not sure why.
5. I don’t yet have the Lion King on DVD (only VHS) so if anyone wants to buy me a copy, feel free.

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19 thoughts on “Hyenas give birth through their clitoris and other facts

  1. Hi, am a new follower to your blog. Loved this entry. And will dig for more of your stuff! 🙂 I found your blog after I read the piece you co-wrote on ‘good dads and not-so-good dads in the animal kingdom’–loved this article as well. Keep it up and good luck with your studies! And when you feel like it, check out my blog, and I will appreciate any comments you may have for me. Cheers

  2. Oh, I must say that growing up next to the sound of Hyenas and listening to Hyena-related oral stories, I find this information you shared very valuable and in fact fascinating … I did not know most of the details… If I may ask, what is the reason that they have a shorter front leg? Thanks,

  3. Interesting article, Can you please elaborate on what perks and responsibilties come to lead female Hyena. Isnt it amazing that she plays two high demanding roles of giving birth and also of being a leader.

  4. Lab Rat says:

    Don’t quote me on this but I’m pretty sure that hyena’s don’t just give birth out of the clitoris, they also have sex there as well. On the one hand it means that there’s a large distance between the vulnerable insides and the outside (so less chance of hyena-cystitis) on the other hand, that looks like the most painful pregnancy ever.

  5. Bud Quinlan says:

    @Lab Rat: yep, female hyena have intercourse through their clitorises (clitorirae? clitori?). However, it’s not erect when having sexual, but the opposite (if you can conceive of an opposite): muscles retract it to some minimal length, but it still points down and forward, away from the hind quarters, so entry for the male is still quite a challenge. He must thrust the tip of his penis as far forward as possible to reach the entry to the female clitoris, but point it backwards towards himself to meet it. This is why the male at the beginning of hyena couplings look like struggling, clueless fools: the opening (which is not the vagina; what would be the labia opening onto the vagina are fused together into the female hyena’s pseudo-scrotum. The vagina proper is completely inside the female hyena, “upstream” of this urogential/sexual opening) is in an impossibly awkward position, and the female has done everything possible to make intercourse possible for the male. The advantage of this is that the female hyena is absolutely rape-proof. Even if a male hyena were as large and strong as a female, there’s no force that he could apply to force a female to have sex with him.

    But yes, it does make for the most painful pregnancy ever, and the first birth will always cause the peniform-clitoris to tear, resulting in a scarring injury that takes weeks to heal—if it doesn’t kill the hyena. The tear leaves a distinctive patch of pink scar tissue, which is one way to tell female from male hyenas without palpating the scrotum/pseudo-scrotum. But if the female is nullparous, there’s no scar, so you’re out of luck.

  6. […] elephants, marsupials and hyenas (whose…interesting… genitals I have covered before here). There is also a female version of the baculum, which has a rather lovely name – the […]

  7. […] the only mammal not to have one: whales, horses, rhinos, rabbits, elephants, marsupials and hyenas all go […]

  8. […] the only mammal not to have one: whales, horses, rhinos, rabbits, elephants, marsupials and hyenas all go […]

  9. Bertha Day says:

    Loved all the facts about any of the animals. Have been to Africa and I still have questions on any and all I sow while I was there. Thank, thank you

  10. […] the only mammal not to have one: whales, horses, rhinos, rabbits, elephants, marsupials and hyenas all go […]

  11. […] arent the only mammal not to have one: whales, horses, rhinos, rabbits, elephants, marsupials and hyenas all go […]

  12. tyrones says:

    I like the striped hyena

  13. […] arent the only mammal not to have one: whales, horses, rhinos, rabbits, elephants, marsupials and hyenas all go […]

  14. […] arent the only mammal not to have one: whales, horses, rhinos, rabbits, elephants, marsupials and hyenas all go […]

  15. […] arent the only mammal not to have one: whales, horses, rhinos, rabbits, elephants, marsupials and hyenas all go […]

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