The spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) is a unique species, even amongst the Hyaenidae. Extreme clitoral development in female spotted hyaenas challenges aspects of the accepted framework of sexual differentiation and reproductive function. They lack a vulva and instead urinate, copulate and give birth through a single, long urogenital canal that traverses a clitoris superficially resembling a penis. Recent and historical evidence is reviewed to describe our changing understanding of the biology of this species. Expanding upon observations from hyaenas in nature, much has been learned from studies utilising the captive colony at the University of California, Berkeley. The steroid environment of pregnancy is shaped by placental androgen and oestrogen secretion and a late gestational increase in sex hormone binding globulin, the regulated expression and steroid-binding characteristics of which are unique within the Hyaenidae. While initial external genital development is largely free of androgenic influence, the increase in testosterone concentrations in late gestation influences foetal development. Specifically, anti-androgen (AA) treatment of pregnant females reduced the developmental influence of androgens on their foetuses, resulting in reduced androstenedione concentrations in young females and easier birth through a 'feminised' clitoris, but precluded intromission and mating by 'feminised' male offspring, and altered social interactions. Insight into the costs and benefits of androgen exposure on spotted hyaena reproductive development, endocrinology and behaviour emphasises the delicate balance that sustains reproductive success, forces a re-evaluation of how we define masculine vs feminine sexual characteristics, and motivates reflection about the representative value of model species.
- sexual differentiation
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism