Can Hyenas Change Their Gender?

By Antonia Čirjak on February 11 2020 in Environment

The hyena is Africa’s most common large carnivore.
  • Female hyenas have a very long clitoris that resembles a penis, which is why hyenas have been previously thought to have the ability to change genders.
  • Male hyenas have to be fast when eating their prey since the female hynas can get very aggressive and take their food.
  • Mating in hyenas is under complete control of the female, as it cannot happen at all if the female is not completely cooperative.

Historically hyenas have often been misunderstood, and myths surrounding were quite unfair. They are often considered greedy and opportunistic scavengers but are highly intelligent beings, much like primates. Their lives are organized in complex societies and display a high level of social intelligence. Status plays an important role, and they assign a different value to different relationships. Hyenas follow rules of social status and cues. They even engage in complex behavior such as deception or distraction.

There are many unusual facets to them. A spotted hyena releases a high pitched sound described as a cackling laugh when it is scared. They are also one of the animal kingdoms' most known gender-benders. Hyenas, however, do not change their gender. Males and females have distinctive reproductive organs and cannot switch them around.

They are only a bit different from what we might expect.

Changing Genders?

Stereotypes about hyena can be seen in literature from Aesop to Hemingway. For example, it was believed for a long time that they could change genders. But is this the case? And why did this idea start spreading in the first place?

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) mother and baby resting together
Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) mother and baby resting together.

It is due to some peculiarities around how they reproduce and live. Female spotted hyenas have a very long clitoris that looks almost exactly like a penis. In scientific jargon, it's called a pseudopenis or peniform clitoris. Additionally, the labia will also be joined together and appear bigger, so it will look like a scrotum. As you can imagine, it confused people because we can have negative associations when something is different.

It was even believed that Hyenas were hermaphrodites that engaged in witchcraft!

Life In A Hyena Pack

Female hyenas are typically larger and more aggressive than males. Their society is a strict matriarchy, and life is very difficult for the male hyena. They eat last during feeding time. When they catch prey, they have to hurry to eat, or females will take their food for themselves. At two or three years old, males leave their clan and have to find a new one so they can mate.

It is a long process full of rejection that can take years. Even if it's successful, a newcomer will have to endure a lot of abuse as a sort of trial before he is accepted and can mate.

The rare sight of spotted hyenas mating
The rare sight of spotted hyenas mating.

Why Is This The Case?

It is not yet clear why the female hyenas' sex organ is like this. It causes problems because the reproductive canal is very long compared to the relative size of a hyena, which makes conception difficult at times. For the first-time pregnancies in captivity, it was observed that during birth, cubs could become stuck and suffocate in the birth canal. There are advantages, nonetheless. With hyenas, mating is not possible without full cooperation from females. Because of the long reproductive canal, they can even flush out sperm if she changes her mind after mating. Hormones can have this kind of masculinization effect in mammals, but it is not the case with the hyena. Research showed that pregnant hyenas that take testosterone and related hormone blockers still produce babies with pseudopenises.

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