According to Sigmund Freud, penis envy is when a girl, at some point during her psychosexual development, realises and reacts to the fact she does not have a penis. Supposedly, it’s a defining moment in a woman’s sexual identity. But one animal that certainly doesn’t have penis envy is the female spotted hyena – and that’s because she already has one.
Okay, maybe it’s not a real penis, but it sure looks like one, as you can see from the picture above. It’s actually a very enlarged clitoris that matches a male’s penis in size, shape and even, on occasion, erectness. What is more, the vagina has completely fused shut to form a pseudo-scrotum, making the spotted hyena the only mammal to lack an external vaginal opening. The females urinate, mate and even (rather cringingly) give birth through their pseudo-penis. It’s no wonder that the Ancient Greeks labelled them as hermaphrodites – the two sexes look so similar that the only real way of telling male and female apart is to see whether the animal has nipples or not.
The anatomical position of this unusual genitalia gives females complete control over who is allowed to mate with them, for the male has to insert his real penis into his partner’s fake one – an act that can take males a couple of months to practice and successfully perform. It also makes rape virtually impossible.
But this arrangement isn’t too advantageous when it comes to actually giving birth. For a start, the birth canal of the spotted hyena is much longer than the umbilical cord so, once the placenta has detached, the young hyena will asphyxiate if it isn’t born promptly. The clitoral opening will stretch during birth but even so, it just isn’t large enough for a hyena cub to pass safely through – and it doesn’t help that hyena cubs are the largest carnivoran babies relative to their mother’ weight. Often, the birth canal is painfully ruptured and this means that over one in ten first-time mothers die during childbirth and many cubs are born already dead. The upside is that since the clitoral ripping never fully recovers, subsequent births do not put the mother’s life at risk.
And the reason for this strange pseudo-penis? Well, it’s all because in spotted hyena society, girls rule. The males are at the very bottom of the pecking order, and even very young female automatically outrank fully-grown male. The females have remarkably high levels of testosterone. In hunting terms, this delivers many benefits. A hyena clan will chase their prey for miles if necessary, tearing into its belly when it finally collapses out of sheer exhaustion. This strategy requires not only great co-ordination and planning but also tremendous aggression. The testosterone not only gives all the aggression the female hyena needs but it also provides them with male-like genitals.
Even from birth, hyenas are programmed to fight. A cub will often kill its twin (they are usually born in pairs) to establish dominance within minutes of both being born, especially if they are of the same sex. The cubs aren’t fighting over milk but are actually preparing themselves for adult life as soon as they arrive in the world.
Females born to mothers of high social ranking are exposed to higher levels of testosterone whilst in their mother’s womb, and therefore inherit their mother’s domineering personality and high social status. The males born to such mothers don’t lose out either. Since females can be so dominating, it can be difficult for a male to convince them to have sex with him. Those males born to high ranking females, however, seem to spend more time practicing mounting when they are young, and this in turn gives them a higher chance of successfully mating with a female for real when they are mature.
The spotted hyena is the most successful and abundant large carnivore in Africa, surpassing both lions and leopards in numbers. Letting the girls be top dogs, it seems, is a winning strategy.