Pseudopenis, Aggression, And Matriarchy: The Sex Life Of Africa’s Most Abundant Carnivore

The sex lives of spotted hyenas are no laughing matter.


Eleanor Higgs


Eleanor Higgs

Creative Services Assistant

Eleanor is a content creator and social media assistant with an undergraduate degree in zoology and a master’s degree in wildlife documentary production.

Creative Services Assistant

Spotted hyenas with bared teeth fighting. The genitals are visible on the right most hyena.

The male and female genitals are virtually impossible to distinguish. 

Image Credit: Bridgena BArnard/Shutterstock

Hyenas are quite an unusual member of the animal kingdom, with powerful bone-crushing jaws and downright weird sex lives. 

There are four species of hyena in the family Hyaenidea that all live in Africa; spotted, brown, striped, and aardwolf. In spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), society is run by females, who are significantly bigger and more aggressive than their male counterparts. The hierarchy is very strict in hyena groups and even the lowest-ranking female will still be more dominant than the highest-ranking males. 


When it comes to mating, female hyenas have a long protruding clitoris that resembles a penis, known as a pseudopenis, through which they are capable of urinating, mating and even giving birth. Female hyenas also possess fused labia that resemble a scrotal sack. These dominant and aggressive females are known to mate with multiple males. The position of the pseudopenis on the female means that the male has to achieve a specific angle to successfully mate with the female, which requires the female's cooperation.

This dominance starts in the womb, as dominant females have higher androgen concentrations in the last stages of their pregnancy than subordinates. The cubs born to these more dominant females have higher rates of aggression, according to a 2006 Nature paper. Spotted hyena gestation lasts 110 to 120 days, and the cubs are born relatively well-developed with even their teeth already fully established. 

As explained in an article for Vox, females must give birth to these 1 kilogram (3 pound) cubs through their pseudopenis. According to the New York Times, 65 to 70 percent of firstborn cubs and 18 percent of first-time hyena mothers die during this birthing process. However spotted hyenas are among the most successful carnivores in Africa, so their well-developed and aggressive young must offer a benefit if they survive the birthing process. 

"Imagine giving birth through a penis," study co-author Kay Holekamp of Michigan State University in a statement told Live Science. "It's really weird genitalia, but it seems to work. Although giving birth through a 'penis' isn't a trivial problem."


Once the cubs are born, male hyenas typically leave their childhood group while their sisters are much more likely to stay with the group they are born into. These young females may even inherit the social status of their mothers since hyenas are the only known non-primate group to have their social structure change in this way. 

Despite their comparatively weird sex lives and unusual societal rules, spotted hyenas are the most abundant carnivore in Africa. 

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.


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