The Awkward Life of the Female Hyena

'Tosin Adeoti
3 min readSep 10, 2022

I was in the neighbourhood trying to get something when I saw a kid watching the popular documentary about the mysterious hyena men in Northern Nigeria. It’s beautiful to watch the domestication of these wild animals. A lot of people have watched this documentary but not many people recognize the fascinating but painful realities of reproduction as performed by the female hyena.

Contrary to what you observe in most mammalian societies, the female hyenas are at the top of the chain. In contrast to most gregarious carnivorous mammals, female spotted hyenas can be up to 10% larger than their male counterparts. Females thus serve as the clan’s hyper-aggressive leaders, leading hunts and establishing dominance over males.

Interestingly, it is the more dominant females that you are likely to see in the wild. And to preserve that dominance, during pregnancy, these females infuse their fetuses with high levels of the androgen hormone, which makes them more aggressive. The more aggressive they are, the more likely they are to survive in the wild, especially with up to 80 individuals in one clan. Survival of the fittest — it is the most aggressive that survives. Even better for the females, they have three times more testosterone in their bodies than their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, the push the females give to their offspring, in evolutionary terms, caused the runaway growth of the clitoris. In the past, it was thought that hyenas were bisexual having both female and male genitals. However, not too long ago, it was discovered that it was the excessive androgen by the females that made the clitoris protrude as much as 7 inches from the female body turning it into a pseudo-penis. It is this pseudo-penis that makes it incredibly difficult to differentiate between male and female hyenas. The clitoris is turns into a 1-inch-wide 7-inch-long pseudo-penis.

It is through this penile organ that the hyena urinates, has sex and, with no external vagina, gives birth. And yes, through the same organ, they are capable of an erection.

But imagine giving birth through a penis?

That’s what the female hyena does. With the cub weighing more than 1kg, the tissue of the clitoris is often ripped apart as the newborn comes out. Unfortunately, it is not only one cub that comes out. As many as 4 cubs tear through the birth canal of only an inch in diameter. On their way out, 60% of the cubs suffocate. That’s a very high death rate. For context, in 1900, before advancement in healthcare, humans had a stillbirth rate of 8%. It’s 60% for hyenas.

For the mothers, about 20% of first timers die. For context, in the 1600s and 1700s, between 1 and 1.5 percent of first-time human mothers giving birth died. Again, it’s 20% in hyenas.

For female hyenas that survive, they would have been given an excessive amount of androgen by their own alpha mother that their ovaries would have been destroyed and make it difficult for them to become pregnant.

Like I said before, it is through the pseudo-penis that the females have sex. And this makes sex with males awkward and difficult. First-time males could take many months of practice before they get it right. The male must carefully position himself to crouch behind the dominant and often impatient female and manage to make his penis point upward and backwards before entering her pseudo-penis. This ‘practice makes perfect’ style also teaches the males to mount females at just a few months old, giving them a better shot at sealing the deal later in life. Most of them die off at 12 years in the wild, so the earlier the better. Even at that, if she doesn’t want sex, the males cannot force her. She has to position her genitalia a certain way for his hard work to pay off. If she refuses to comply, there is nothing he can do.

Also to her benefit, the female’s long reproductive tract delays the sperm’s arrival, giving her time to urinate and wash the sperm out if she isn’t really into the male. You can call it the height of sexual selection.

It is the female’s world in the hyena kingdom. Even at that, it is a painful and awkward female world.

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