Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Courtship -- hyena style

Although it is perfectly clear that adult male spotted hyenas are sexually interested in adult females who might be getting ready to mate, it is equally clear that males experience rather dramatic emotional conflicts during courtship.

On the one hand, a male hyena wants to mate with the female, and for this he obviously needs to remain in close proximity to her, but on the other hand he clearly fears biting attacks by the female, and this appears to make him want to keep a safe distance from her. Thus courtship interactions in this species are therefore characterized by extreme male ambivalence. They are also characterized by apparent indifference on the part of the female, who generally seems to ignore the male’s courtship gestures altogether.

The other day I watched the male (standing) in the pictures at right expressing very strong sexual interest in a female dozing near the den. He would repeatedly tiptoe up to her while she napped, but as soon as she lifted her head (even if she was not even orienting toward him), he would dash out of range of her jaws. You can see from his posture, with his front foot elevated, that he was always ready to flee even as he approached the female.

You can also see how aroused he was, because he was sporting a phallic erection that actually flipped up against his belly. He engaged over and over in this sequence of behaviors, in what we call an “approach-avoid” display. Obviously male spotted hyenas must overcome a very unusual set of motivational challenges in order to court large, aggressive, well-armed females.

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