Mighty jaws and strange sex life: the mysterious world of spotted hyenas

Spotted hyenas are amazing creatures with unusual features and behavior. These powerful African predators attract attention with their crushing jaws and strange sexual organs.

There are four species of hyenas in the family Hyaenidea: the spotted, brown, striped, and ground wolf. But it is the spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) that are the most famous and unique members of this family. In their society, females play the dominant role, they are larger and more aggressive than males. The hierarchy in hyena groups is strictly defined, and even a female with a low rank will dominate over males with a high rank.

One of the most unusual features of spotted hyenas is their sexual anatomy. Female hyenas have a pseudopenis, which resembles a protruding clitoris. Through it, they can urinate, mate, and even give birth. In addition, female hyenas have fused labia, forming a scrotal sac. This anatomy makes the mating process in hyenas quite complicated and requires the cooperation of the female and the male.

But why such an unusual sexual anatomy in hyenas? It turns out it has to do with their social structure and group dominance. Dominant females have higher concentrations of androgens in the latter stages of pregnancy than subordinate females. A study published in Nature in 2006 showed that cubs born to more dominant females have higher levels of aggression.

A spotted hyena’s pregnancy lasts about 110-120 days, and the cubs are born already relatively well-developed, with fully formed teeth. But the birthing process in hyenas is very complicated and dangerous. According to the New York Times, 65 to 70 percent of hyenas’ first births result in the death of the cubs, and 18 percent of first-time hyena mothers also die. Despite this, however, spotted hyenas are among the most successful predators in Africa, thanks to their well-developed and aggressive cubs.

“Imagine giving birth through a penis,” says Kay Holekamp of Michigan State University, a co-author of the study. “It’s really weird genitalia, but it seems to work. Although giving birth through the ‘penis’ is a non-trivial problem.”

After giving birth to their cubs, male hyenas usually leave their cub group, while females are more likely to stay in the group where they were born. These young females may even inherit the social status of their mothers, making hyenas the only known nonprimate group whose social structure changes in this way.

Despite their strange sex life and unusual social behavior, spotted hyenas are the most numerous predators in Africa. Their success as predators is due not only to their strong jaws and aggressiveness, but also to their well-developed and surviving cubs

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