Do All Hyenas Have Male Genitals?

Resemble One Another

©Shem Compion
The genitals of a female hyena closely resemble those of a male, making hyenas extremely hard to sex except that adult females are larger than adult males. On close examination, the pseudo-penis, which is actually a pseudo-scrotum and an enlarged penis-like clitoris, lacks the triangular glans (tip) of a male’s penis. Hyenas are not hermaphrodites as myth has previously suggested. The strange female genital contains the opening to the birth canal. The penis-like organ develops due to exposure to high androgen levels in the womb and female hyenas possess much higher testosterone levels than one would expect of a female animal.

The bizarre female genitals are the focus of the hyena greeting ceremony whereby two hyenas from the same clan stand head to tail and lift their legs to expose the erect genitals to the other’s nose. Only animals familiar with one another will engage in this greeting ceremony and males, the less dominant sex, are particularly reluctant to expose their most vulnerable parts to the powerful jaw of a female. This ritual is a form of social bonding among clan members that need to have good cohesion to perform team activities like attacking prey or lions and defending the territory.

Cub Hierarchy

©Roger de la Harpe
Giving birth is no easy task for a hyena mother. The birth canal traverses the pseudo-penis and is twice as long as in other mammals. The umbilical cord disconnects from the placenta while the cub is still inside the birth canal, the opening of which is far smaller than the cubs head. As a result first-time mothers often produce still-born cubs their first time round due to oxygen starvation. Due to the urogenital opening splitting, subsequent births are a little easier.

Unlike other carnivores, hyena cubs are born with their eyes open, canines fully erupted and aggressive tendencies intact. The female usually gives birth to twins, which in the case of two female cubs, means that the battle for dominance begins immediately and one cub usually dies. If one of the cubs is male, the female naturally dominates him and there is no need for fighting.

Hyena cubs are very playful and make for entertaining viewing. They chase each other around, clamber over the adults and pick up objects like sticks during their games. These activities all help to hone developing muscles as well as the lifestyle skills they will require as adults.

By Megan Emmett