On the Origin of Species: Poochyena and Mightyena
Today's column is a little different from the usual routine. Most of the time, I'm describing Pokémon whose origins aren't immediately obvious: perhaps because they're based on an obscure animal or element of Japanese mythology. Today's Pokémon have origins that are fairly obvious, but the animal that inspired them is so hugely misunderstood that I think it deserves a column of its own.
Poochyena and Mightyena, as their names suggest, are based heavily upon the hyena. And there are a few things that most people know about hyenas: namely that they're some sort of dog, and that they're unpleasant and cowardly scavengers. But as it happens, none of these statements are actually true.
First of all, hyenas aren't dogs. Though their facial features are somewhat dog-like, they are more closely related to cats, and their closest living relatives are, perhaps surprisingly, mongooses and meerkats. There are four species of hyena in total, spread across Africa and Southern Asia. The smallest and meekest of these is the aardwolf (Proteles cristata), which lives mostly on insects, and occasionally small mammals and birds. Intermediate in size are the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea). Both of these species are primarily scavengers, but the species most commonly associated with the practice – and the one with which most of us are familiar – is the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). These are the largest of the hyenas, and are also the species with the reputation for 'laughing'. It might come as a surprise to learn that they are highly specialized, expert hunters... and, as we'll discover, a species with some very peculiar features.
Poochyena and Mightyena are known as the Bite Pokémon, and this is not without good reason. The spotted hyena has an extremely strong bite for its size, and some sources will assure you that it has the strongest bite of any mammal. Though this isn't actually true (the Tasmanian devil is the clear winner here), it is roughly on par with the lion. The bite of the spotted hyena is easily strong enough to crush bones, and larger, extinct hyena species could even break the bones of elephants with their enormous teeth.
And while we're on the subject of teeth, what of the hyena's dietary habits? What do they eat? The short answer is that they'll eat anything – their powerful jaws and digestive systems allow them to consume every part of a carcass, including bones. While fresh meat is preferred, they're also capable of eating rotten meat with no ill effects. And this, it would seem, is what has given the spotted hyena its reputation for scavenging.
Our popular culture takes a very dim view of scavenging animals, and one need look no further than fiction involving anthropomorphic animals to see this. As TVTropes explains, in stories where herbivores are the heroes, carnivores are the villains. And when carnivores are the heroes... scavengers are the villains, since they're clearly too cowardly to get their own food, unlike the noble heroes. Maybe the most egregious example of this is Disney's The Lion King, which takes pretty much every negative stereotype about hyenas to its logical conclusion, and portrays the hyena trio as slobbering, mangy idiots. Of course, this anti-scavenger sentiment ignores the fact that scavengers are an absolutely fundamental part of the ecosystem... or 'circle of life', to adopt the movie's own terminology. It also smacks slightly of hypocrisy, given that most humans eat meat, and generally don't kill said meat themselves.
But the truth is that spotted hyenas don't scavenge any more than any other carnivore. Professor Kay Holekamp, one of the foremost experts on the species, states that they kill ninety five percent of what they eat, and that it is far more common for lions to steal the kills of hyenas than vice versa. Lions and hyenas are in direct competition for food, and this rivalry regularly turns nasty: sixty per cent of hyena deaths are caused by run-ins with lions, according to one estimate.
But we haven't even touched on the most interesting aspect of the spotted hyena: namely its society, and some unique anatomy that still has zoologists scratching their heads.
Firstly, spotted hyenas have some of the most complex societies seen in the animal kingdom. They live in 'clans' of up to eighty members. A spotted hyena clan is one of the very few female-dominated societies amongst the mammals. It's not too uncommon to find species of insects or fish where the female is bigger than the male, but this is highly unusual for mammals. Female spotted hyenas are, however, bigger than the males on average, and more aggressive. They also outrank the males in the social hierarchy of the species, to the extent that the lowest ranking female is still considered superior to the highest ranking male. This organized social structure seems to be one of the main factors underpinning the success of the spotted hyena as a species. Experiments have indicated that the intelligence of the spotted hyena is on a par with that of the primates, and seems to be even greater when it comes to problems requiring co-operation.
Secondly, it's very difficult to tell male and female spotted hyenas apart. Even the experts sometimes won't know the gender of a hyena until it gives birth. This is because – and you may wish to look away for the rest of this paragraph if you're easily startled – female spotted hyenas have an organ that looks almost exactly like the male's penis. This is what they mate and give birth through... and yes, both of these activities are just as tricky and fraught with painful problems as you're probably now imagining. So why do the females have this organ? For a while, it was thought that its presence was a side effect of the large amounts of male hormones produced by the females. These hormones increase aggression, and it seemed reasonable to assume that male hormones would lead to male-like features. However, experiments have shown that female cubs will develop these organs even without the assistance of male hormones, so this is one puzzle we're not all that close to solving. Regardless of how they come about, there must be some evolutionary advantage to all of this to outweigh the obvious problems... but we don't yet know enough about the spotted hyena to say for sure what it is.
And this is the problem, really. The real reason we don't know much about this remarkable species is because, for one reason or another, they don't appeal to us. Despite being the top predator in Africa, you're very unlikely to see a spotted hyena in a zoo, because, well... they just don't seem to draw the crowds. We, as humans, like to apply human traits to animals, and all too often the hyena is cast as the villain.
Given all of the above, I have to admit that the Pokémon series' portrayal of hyenas is actually a pretty positive one. I've even seen suggestions that some of Poochyena and Mightyena's more positive traits must come from dogs, because, well... there's no way that hyenas could be cute, or noble, or intelligent... right? Their coloration actually seems closest to the striped hyena, which is various shades of black, white and gray. It's just as likely, though, that these colors were chosen for the simple reason that both Pokémon are Dark-types. Shiny Poochyena and Mightyena have a color that's pretty close to that of the spotted hyena. Pokédex entries reveal more hyena-like features: references are made to Poochyena's strong teeth and ability to eat almost anything. Mightyena's Pokédex entries tell of co-operation and a rigid social hierarchy that allows the species to thrive. Clearly, somebody at Game Freak did their research. The only criticism I have of the series' portrayal is to do with the names: 'Poochyena' furthers the misconception that hyenas are dogs. We can't really blame the localization team for this one, though, because the name is derived from the Japanese name, Pochiena (ポチエナ). Pochi is a generic Japanese name often given to dogs, so it seems as if they were going for the same thing.
Regardless of this minor quibble, I have to give credit to the Pokémon series for a largely positive portrayal of this underappreciated animal. I've a great fondness for hyenas (just ask Hedwig, the plush hyena who lives on my desk), and I really believe that, if we could only do something about these false stereotypes, many more people would come to appreciate the hyena as an animal that's intelligent, unique and, yes, even beautiful. If just one person reading this is inspired to change their perception of the hyena, I'll consider it a job well done.