Friday, April 18, 2008

Girls will be boys

I used to work on an experiment carried out at the Berkeley Field Station for the Study of Behavior, Ecology and Reproduction. The field station is a 23-acre enclosure in the hills just above the campus. Although I was working with insects the Field station is best known for its Hyena colony. It is a little odd to be working away in the California sun to the constant whooping of hyenas but you get used to it surprisingly quickly. The place I was working overlooked a well used fire trail that is a popular hiking path up the hills. Very frequently dogs would just stop in their tracks when they heard, and presumably smelt, the hyenas. Anyway, you inevitably get to learn a bit about hyenas and hyenas are very strange.

One unusual feature of the spotted hyena is that females have an enlarged clitoris called a pseudo-penis. Female hyenas give birth, copulate, and urinate through their protruding genitalia, which stretches to allow the male penis to enter for copulation, and it also stretches during birth. The anatomical position of the genitalia makes it difficult for males to mate without the full cooperation of females, which helps the female dominated society of spotted hyenas to eliminate forced sex.

There's an article about the colony in the Berkeley Science Review. It's interesting that they used to think that females were rarely caught - presumably because every animal they caught had a 'penis'. That's a female in the picture above by the way.

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