Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 33, Issue 6, pp 355–370

The erect ‘penis’ is a flag of submission in a female-dominated society: greetings in Serengeti spotted hyenas


  • Marion L. East
    • Max-Planck-Institut fur Verhaltensphysiologie
  • Heribert Hofer
    • Max-Planck-Institut fur Verhaltensphysiologie
  • Wolfgang Wickler
    • Max-Planck-Institut fur Verhaltensphysiologie

DOI: 10.1007/BF00170251

Cite this article as:
East, M.L., Hofer, H. & Wickler, W. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (1993) 33: 355. doi:10.1007/BF00170251


In East Africa, spotted hyenas live in large clans in a highly structured society dominated by females. A clan is a fission-fusion society where members are often solitary or in small groups. Spotted hyenas have a ritualized greeting during which two individuals stand parallel and face in opposite directions. Both individuals usually lift their hind leg and sniff or lick the anogenital region of the other. The unique aspect of greetings between individuals is the prominent role of the erect ‘penis’ in animals of both sex. Female spotted hyenas have fused outer labiae and a ‘pseudo-penis’ formed by the clitoris which closely resembles the male penis and can be erected. During greetings subordinates signalled submission with gestures which were not necessarily reciprocated by the dominant participant. Asymmetries were most pronounced in greetings between adult females where the probability of asymmetries increased with the divergence in rank between partners. Greetings between adult females and males were uncommon and restricted to males above median rank, principally the alpha male. Models of primate affiliative behavior assume that benefits derived from social relationships with different individuals are not equal and that individuals are selected to maximize the benefits they receive from social relationships with others. The observed distribution of greetings between partners of different rank matched the predictions of these models. An examination of non-adaptive hypotheses on the evolution of the ‘pseudo-penis’ demonstrated that the conventional scenario linking (initial) virilization of female genitalia with selection for female dominance does not explain either the initial virilization, nor the evolution of the ‘pseudo-penis’ to its current form and use. We sketch a new scenario that links (1) initial virilization to the occurrence of neonatal siblicide amongst members of a twin litter, and (2) costs of maintenance, ‘pseudo-penile’ control over copulation and male submission. Our analysis confirms previous adaptive hypotheses on the function of the ‘pseudo-penis’ in greetings and suggests new hypotheses to account for hitherto unexplained features.

Key words

Hyena communicationFemale-dominatedPenis submission
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© Springer-Verlag 1993