I've been reading and hearing a lot about spotted hyenas in the media lately. They caught my attention because, well, hyenas don't usually show up in my newsfeed very often (or at all). However, in the process, I learned a lot about hyenas--and hyena sex. And it's pretty fascinating stuff.
It all started with a New York Times writer likening film producer Harvey Weinstein to a hyena shortly after the sexual harassment and assault allegations against him began to emerge last year. Some thought the comparison was apt because male hyenas are widely seen as vicious, aggressive creatures. However, this was followed by claims (such as those made in the Big Think video below) that this is a poor comparison because hyena society is one in which there is a strict matriarchy and females with 8-inch clitorises (sometimes called "pseudo-penises") rule the roost. From there, the media went into talking about the lessons that we can learn from hyena society in the #MeToo era. This, in turn, was followed by claims that hyena society is actually quite complex and that the matriarchy narrative that was starting to take hold in the media is wrong. Very, very wrong.
The truth of the matter is that the story behind hyena society is--like most science--very nuanced. The single best and most accessible read I've seen on the subject is available here. If you read anything about hyenas, this should be it because it's based on an informed understanding of the most recent research on the subject and it tells us what we can--and can't--infer from hyena society. The short version is that the matriarchy theory of hyena society is one that scientists rejected in the early 2000s because fieldwork increasingly showed that it wasn't *just* one sex running the show and that there's actually a lot of variability between clans.
With that said, one of the most interesting things I learned about hyenas from all of this is how they have sex. As a said, females have an 8-inch clitoris--but, believe it or not, a male must put his penis inside of it in order to mate. As you might imagine, this makes sex a tricky matter. It requires a very coordinated act and, due to its nature, it seems to promote a much stronger element of female choice than in other species. Sex isn't the only tricky part, though--birth is, too, because cubs must be delivered through the clitoris, which is quite narrow. As a result, it's not uncommon for females to experience injury or even die during birth.
If that's the case, then what's the explanation behind female hyenas' unique genitals? Why would they have evolved this way? One theory is that female hyenas' genitals evolved as an "anti-rape mechanism," or a way of giving them more power and control over mating. However, another is that it's a form of sexual mimicry--the appearance of the clitoris makes females virtually indistinguishable from males from a physical standpoint, so some think that perhaps this camouflage offered evolutionary benefits. We don't know which (if any) of these explanations are true, but they're certainly fascinating!
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Image Source: 123RF/belizar
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