Spotted Hyaenas have it tough

by Deb on June 22, 2012

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Really tough. And that’s not even considering the bad press they have as cowards and cheats. Part of the problem is that their back legs are shorter than their front legs so it looks like they are crouching and cowering even when they’re standing up. They are most closely related to meerkats but they look close enough to dogs that we (mis)judge them by that.

Hyaenas are opportunistic feeders – they will happily scavenge or kill their own. Their teeth, jaws and forequarters are stronger than a lion and they can drive lions away from kills – another reason they are thought of as thieves. They can eat absolutely anything, even digesting bone as if it’s a meal. Zoos give large carnivores ‘starve days’ because they don’t normally eat every day, they often give them bones to play with on that day. A zoo I used to volunteer at had to stop giving the hyaenas bones because they were getting fat!

The ancient Greeks thought they were hermaphrodites, and this is where it gets hard for them. Spotted hyaena society is heavily based on dominance, and the females are on top. One of the ways they establish dominance is through having high levels of testosterone – as much as males have in other animals.

But you can’t just mess around with one system without affecting others. Extra testosterone has made female hyaenas aggressive, but it has also affected the way their sexual organs develop. On the inside they are completely female, with ovaries and a uterus, but their outer sexual organs look more like a male’s.

Their labia are fused to form a false scrotum and their vagina extends through a large clitoris that looks like a penis. They have to both mate and give birth through this penis. It’s very stretchy but the hole in the tip is too small for a cub to fit through, they can only be born by tearing open the end. Not surprisingly, three out of four first cubs die and take many first time or even later mothers with them. Later cubs don’t have it easy, their umbilical cord is shorter than the birth canal so to make it out they have to survive with no oxygen until they get through. Hopefully an earlier cub has torn a hole, or if they are part of a later litter they might only have to rip through more fragile scar tissue.

If anyone tries to tell you that nature ‘perfects’ systems or that birth is safe otherwise humans wouldn’t have survived, tell them about the spotted hyaena. They prove that all you need is to have a few babies survive and the pack continues, nature happily accepts enormous amounts of wastage. And in this case, wastage means deaths. Humans are no more immune to this than any other animal.

Their mothers put them into aardvark dens for a while before bringing them back to the communal den and they begin their training in aggression early. If there are two surviving cubs, the dominant cub can make life precarious for their littermate. Aardvark dens have many small tunnels and the mother comes and lies down at the entrance to feed the cubs. A dominant cub can stop its sibling from coming out and they can starve to death.

The good news is that if they survive birth and infancy, they go back to the communal den and have the whole pack as protectors. Then they only face the normal hazards of wild animals until it is time to breed.



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