Friday, June 3, 2011

Hyena Sexism

What do you first think of when you imagine hyenas? Their cackling voices, their notorious reputation as scavengers, their role as antagonists in every story that mentions them? There's so much about these animals that many don't know, and all the most interesting parts seem to have been omitted from public perspective. Spotted hyenas are highly intelligent creatures who live in a complex hierarchy, and much of their social habits seem to have risen from some strange ultra-feminist text of the sixties.

Negative stereotypes.
You see, spotted hyenas (the most common variety,) have a matriarchal society; meaning that their packs, or clans, are lead by a female alpha. This isn't too unusual in the animal world: bees and ants seem to have run a matriarchal super-empire for eons now, and elephant herds are always guided by the oldest, wisest grandmother in the group. But hyenas stand out because not only does their social structure lean in the womens' favor, their biology actually supports and reinforces this behavior.

Centuries ago, when European explorers first came upon the hyenas, something about their organization seemed strongly amiss. Try as they might, even the best medieval naturalists just couldn't locate a female of their breed. Every hyena they found was stockier and fiercer than the last, and their external sexual anatomy looked... pretty damn masculine. Dark Ages science being what it was, these people soon concluded that there simply were no female hyenas, and that they must be springing up randomly from the earth. (You know, the same way flies suddenly appear out of old meat.) Here's the root of a lot of the stigma surrounding these creatures: ancient "scientists" decided that hyenas weren't born naturally and therefore weren't made by God, but perhaps some unholy supernatural force. The four-legged witches having no way to defend themselves, this assumption hung around for hundreds of years.

This animal's face is on the side of his head. Clearly he's not of this world.

The truth is almost stranger than fiction. -Almost, science couldn't match medieval imagination this time. Obviously, there are female hyenas. I've already made reference to them so they must be real. Ancient scholars just never found them because their anatomy is so misleading. ...As much as we're all wishing to keep this site classy, the explanation here does involve a little bit of hyena gynecology, so skip through to the next section if you're squeamish. When you look at the backside of an adult hyena, (which I know you're all just dying to do,) you'll invariably see what appear to be testicles. Actually, females of the Crocutta genus have large, prominent labia, as well as an overdeveloped clitoris that looks and behaves like a penis. They can get erections and produce large amounts of androgens (male hormones) in their blood, which explains some of the typically 'masculine' behavior. This exotic equipment comes with its setbacks, as infant mortality and miscarriage rates for hyenas are exceedingly high, and about 10% of first-time mothers die in labor.

Scientists are still unsure about why evolution shaped these charming shemales, but it might have something to do with their long gestation periods and high competition for food. Either way, it can be difficult for an observing human to discern the sexes unless you take into account that the females are noticeably larger and more aggressive than the males. (We only figured this out after a few much-needed dissections.) Basically, their society revolves around an inversion of the typical gender dynamic: the females are the big, domineering ones, who make kills while hunting and get first dibs on food. They pick and choose their mates from a list of hopeful males, and a potential suitor will only earn her paw if he expresses total submission to her. Females still take exclusive responsibility for their young, but any male who comes too close to them will be punished severely. They're essentially nature's real-life Amazons, with comparatively small, captive menfolk who they treat like trophies and boy toys.

Get back in the kitchen and make me a sammich!
Before anyone points out some unfortunate implications I might be stirring with the whole 'savage matriarchy' idea, keep in mind that hyenas are proven to be some of the most intelligent carnivores in world. Their society is richly tiered and their communication is much more advanced than that of canines or felines. IQ tests suggest that their social skills are on par with some monkeys in terms of complexity and efficiency, and one experiment even suggested they're better at group problem-solving than chimpanzees. Contrary to popular belief, they hunt just as much as lions do and actually have a higher predatory success rate, which means less carrion and more zebra for dinner. In addition, they don't have any of the infanticidal tendencies of the big cats: the usual cause of neonatal death in hyenas is infighting among litters, especially with same-sex siblings. (You thought our sibling rivalry was rough? Try fighting your twin to the death at two days old.) As I shrilled at you in the beginning, there's a lot of information about animals that isn't common knowledge, and I don't recommend forming your perception of an entire species until you know the facts. Now when you hear about hyenas, maybe you'll imagine their fearsomely effective Amazon brigades instead of those schmucks from "The Lion King."

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