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The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) is a species of hyena that inhabits most of sub-Saharan Africa and is riddled with common misconceptions. Perhaps the biggest is that they are dogs. This is untrue as dogs are members of the family Canidae and hyenas have their own family (Hyaenidae). Furthermore, hyenas are members of Feliformia, the Carnivora suborder containing the “cat-like” Carnivorans (Felidae, Viverridae, Herpestidae, Prionodontidae, Eupleridae, and Nandiniidae) where as dogs are, obviously, in the “dog-like” suborder of Caniformia along with Ursidae, Procyonidae, Mustelidae, Mephitidae, Ailuridae, Phocidae, Odobenidae, and Otariidae. They have received their dog-like characteristics as a result of convergent evolution as hyenas and most dogs fill a similar ecological niche.
Another misconception is that these animals are scavengers. While, like most predators, they will feed opportunistically upon carrion and have adaptations for finding it, they hunt and kill most of their meals. They’ll hunt almost anything, but mostly avoid giraffe, buffalo, and plains zebra. With large prey, they hunts in packs of up to 15 individuals, but will hunt smaller prey alone.
They are highly social creatures and arguably the most social Carnivorans (even more so than wolves or lions). They live in large groups of up to 80 members called clans. Clans are matriarchal with even the lowest ranking females dominating the highest ranking males. Young hyenas inherit the ranks of their mothers in respect to their own genders. Females tend to stay with these clans for life while males usually leave the clans in which they were born to join new ones. With such complex social structures for such large groups, hyenas are intelligent and comparable to primates in how they can keep track of who’s who. They can even track complex traits in others such as reliability.
Part of what maintains this hierarchy is that females release high levels of androgen during pregnancy, and more androgen is released in higher ranking females. The young of these high ranking females, therefore, have more masculine traits such as promiscuity and aggressive behavior which helps maintains their rank. The androgen is also responsible perhaps for the presence of a pseudo-penis evolved from her clitoris. It is through this organ that mating occurs, not through the vagina. During copulation, females withdraw the pseudo-penis and allows the male to enter. This is also the cavity through which birth takes place, and it’s as difficult a feat as it sounds made harder only by the fact that hyenas are the largest Carnivoran babies in relation to the mother’s size. Females who have given birth are easily recognized by bright pink scar tissue on their normally dark pseudo-penises.
Spotted hyenas greet one another by sniffing each other’s genitalia. Here, the females pseudo-penis can clearly be seen as well as the pink scar on it that shows that she has given birth before.
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