In A Nutshell
If there’s anything Kindergarten Cop taught us, it’s that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Except when they don’t. The female hyena’s clitoris is so large, it’s essentially a penis (and larger than all the boys’ junk).
The Whole Bushel
The female spotted hyena runs things in the cackle. Males are submissive, cautious, and fearful. For hyenas, size matters, and the female’s clitoris is larger than any male’s penis.
The female has no external vagina. She urinates and mates through her penis-like shaft—which, by the way, is capable of an erection. Even more confusing, a sac of fat and tissue, covered in thick hair, hangs behind the 18-centimeter (7 in) clitoris like some cruel mockery of the male’s scrotum.
Naturally, mating with two penises is difficult. Males need a great deal of practice to get things right. After the male submits to the female—which includes comparing sizes—she will roll the clitoris up to create an entrance for the male’s penis, which he must somehow curve upward and inward to make sex possible.
If he succeeds in impregnating the female, she’ll have to face a reality men can only joke about with winced expressions: giving birth through a penis.
During pregnancy, the female hyena will pump her babies (male and female) with extra doses of androgen, which is associated with masculine aggression. This ensures that the massive clitoris–cycle continues and gives males the boost they need to be able to mate with macho females.
The cubs don’t leave Mom unscathed on their way out. A 1-kilogram (2 lb) cub has to fit through a 2.5-centimeter (1 in) birth canal. At best, the clitoris is torn, causing a wound that takes weeks to heal. At worst, birth can be fatal. Around 20 percent of mothers die during childbirth.
No one knows for sure why the female spotted hyena developed this trait. But it does grant her authority in hyena society on the African savannah, where the female leads the hunt, feast, and social life.