Tuesday 12 February 2013

Fairly Useless Facts (No 2)

Hyenas belong to the dog family. They are despicable, cowardly scavengers who almost never kill anything, unless it is weak and virtually defenceless, and who come in to clean up after lions do the hard work of murdering large animals and eating their fill. This is so well known that calling someone a “hyena” is an insult.

All of this is, of course, as only some of us know, also completely false.  

Hyenas are more closely related to civets and mongooses than to the canids. Their resemblance to dogs is due to convergent evolution, the result of competing for the same ecological niche – that of being pack hunters on the open plain.

Pack hunters, did I say? Why, yes.

Hyenas are extremely efficient hunters. They are so efficient that in parts of the savannah where hyena packs are in abundance, it is they who score the majority of kills, running down wildebeest and zebra herds and eating alive any they can bring down. And then it’s the lions who use their greater size and strength to bully their way to hyena kills to score a share.

It’s not just their efficiency at hunting which matters. Since hyenas have digestive systems which can break down pretty much anything except their preys’ hooves and teeth, they’ll also probably be around to eat our last carcasses after we’re extinct. And bon app├ętit too.

And, oh yeah, hyenas are also total feminists. They have a completely matriarchal society, with the lowest ranking female member placed higher on the totem pole than the highest ranking male member. That’s in contrast to, oh, say, lions, where the males do little but breed, and the lionesses are responsible for everything from hunting to bringing up the cubs.

Also, it’s rather difficult to tell male and female hyenas apart from the external genitalia. That’s because the dominant females have massive levels of androgen in their bodies, the hormone making them competitive and aggressive. It also causes their clitorises to enlarge to the dimensions of male hyena penises. Think about that for a moment.

It gets worse. The vagina in the hyena runs as a canal through the clitoris – which makes it rather awkward for male hyenas to, you know, penetrate the females. It requires a lot of practice, which is why dominant male hyenas begin practising at only a few months of age. What do you call that, reverse paedophilia?

It also means that a lot of hyena moms die from tissue rupture giving birth to their first babies. Because the babies are born through the clitorises.

They are kind of cute though

 That is the exact point at which we can stop admiring hyena evolution, I guess.

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