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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Crocuta crocuta 

I have a soft spot for the misunderstood creatures of the world, the spotted hyena in particular.

They are an evolutionary oddity, a chimera, with snaky long necks and strangely shortened rear legs that give them their comical, awkward gait. Although they resemble a bear/dog/lion mixture, their closest relative, and not a close one, is the mongoose.

But here’s where spotted hyenas get really weird – the males and females are nearly impossible to tell apart, so much so that it widely believed until not that long ago that spotted hyenas were hermaphrodites. Females are awash in androgen and have scrotum like sacks and a pseudo-penis, just like what you hear happens to certain juiced up competitive female body builders. Actually, in the hyena’s case this pseudo penis (which they can make erect at will) is a fusion of the clitoris, labia of the vagina. Hyenas give birth through this narrow tunnel, which makes childbirth a risky proposition and frequently results in the death of the first time mother or the first cub, who will suffocate before it can make its way out. The females are highly aggressive, and the dominant female will try to kill all other females in her litter, sometimes within seconds of birth.

They live in female dominated, matriarchal packs. Male relatives are usually driven off, presumably to prevent inbreeding. As one hyena researcher states, “Female dominance imposes unusual diffidence and patience on males. Their obvious fear of female aggression makes courtship an often amusing spectacle.

Although labeled as scavengers, hyenas are skilled hunters. A pack can reduce a cape buffalo down to its hooves in minutes. Actually, hyenas will eat the hooves (and horn, teeth and pelt), extract what calcium there is to be had and then regurgitate it like an owl pellet.

This is a picture of a friend of mine taken while he was in Ethiopia. Hyenas descend upon this one town at night, presumably because they’re fed as a tourist attraction. Looks like he can feel that hyenas hot breath on his face.

Comments:
Have you read Middlesex yet? Human hyena! Very deserving of that Pulitzer, BTW.
 
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