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Q Rev Biol. 2002 Mar;77(1):3-16.

Sexual mimicry in hyenas.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.


Genital masculinization in female spotted hyenas has been widely explained as an incidental consequence of high androgen levels. High androgen levels, in turn, were supposed to be favored because they led to adaptive aggressive behavior. Incidental androgenization is no longer a tenable hypothesis, however, because genital masculinization has been shown to proceed in the absence of androgenic steroids. Thus, an alternative hypothesis is required. The genitals of spotted hyena females are not simply masculinized, but exhibit a detailed physical resemblance to the male genitalia. In the absence of satisfactory alternative explanations, we propose that selection may have favored sexual mimicry in females because they are more likely than males to be targets of aggression from other females. Male-like camouflage could theoretically be protective in three contexts: neonate sibling aggression, infanticide by conspecific females, and interclan territoriality. Current data suggest that if sexual mimicry is important, its effects are strongest among infants.

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