Most of us associate hyenas with Africa, but one species, the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) also lives in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and India. What many people also don’t know is that hyenas were once widespread across much of Eurasia and North America.
And a recent fossil find by paleontologists shows that hyenas roamed further north than we realized. Thanks to a pair of remarkable teeth found in the Old Crow Basin of Canada’s Yukon Territory, we now know that hyenas of the extinct genus Chasmaporthetes made their way across North America and into the Arctic Circle, Gizmodo reports. The new information is part of a report published last week in the journal Open Quaternary.
In an interview with National Geographic, Jack Tseng, a paleontologist with the University at Buffalo in New York, greatly increases our existing knowledge about these powerful carnivores.
“These new fossils add to [the] geographical and biographical range that hyenas could have,” Tseng says.
The discovery provides the evidence that paleontologists had long hoped for — that these animals, despite the inhospitable conditions, did indeed cross the Bering land bridge that linked Siberia with Alaska.
“We have proof that hyenas were up there, and at least they are capable of being found there,” Tseng adds. “Maybe they traveled through and died, but they were going through that area.”
Unlike their stockily-built modern cousins, these ancient hyenas, which lived between 800,000 and 1.4 million years ago, were gracefully built and are known as “running hyenas” thanks to long legs that made them swift and efficient predators. Aided by jaws that could easily crack bones, Chasmaporthetes hunted other Arctic animals, including Caribou, horses, and quite possibly, mammoths.
“We are not saying they were hunting down adult mammoth — that would be a feat for any carnivore,” says the study’s lead author, Jack Tseng, a paleontologist with the University at Buffalo in New York. “But young and even juvenile [African] elephants are within the ability of spotted hyenas to take down. I see that as a good analogue to interpret how Chasmaporthetes would have hunted.”
Swiftness wasn’t the only thing Chasmaporthetes was likely gifted with. Coping in a climate harsher than today, it may have sported dense fur, not unlike that of mammoths and woolly rhinos. And some scientists think that like Arctic foxes and hares, that fur may have changed color according to the seasons — becoming paler in the winter to make it easier to blend in while hunting prey.
“It’s not that far-fetched to imagine these Arctic hyenas were shaggy and even had these coat changes, with a paler coat in winter, so that they can be successful at hunting in the snow,” Tseng says.
Most of us also think hyenas evolved in Africa, but that’s incorrect. Evidence points to Eurasia as the starting point of hyena evolution. And while there are only four hyena species alive today, mostly restricted to warmer and drier conditions in Africa, 70 species once roamed across the Northern Hemisphere.
“If you are looking at living species, you are examining less than 10 percent of hyena diversity,” Tseng notes.
And some, like Chasmaporthetes, went wandering — through North America and even into Mexico. But for scientists, the tricky part had long been how to figure out how hyenas made the leap from Eurasia to North America. Most assumed the creatures had crossed the Bering land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska. But they didn’t have the evidence to support that.
“It’s really fun and exciting to see that hyenas were in fact in the Arctic and that they did take this migration route,” notes Larisa DeSantis, an expert on fossil carnivores at Vanderbilt University who wasn’t involved in the study. “It confirms what people had long thought … that these hyenas had come through Beringia and the land bridge to make it into more southern regions of North America.”
And increasingly, there’s more and more evidence that large Pleistocene carnivores traveled further north than ever noted before.
“We’re finding Pleistocene carnivores farther north than they’ve ever been found before,” says Ashley Reynolds, a paleontologist at the University of Toronto. She’s recently documented evidence that the famed saber-toothed cat Smilodon, made its way into Canada. “Carnivores are very important parts of an ecosystem, but they’re often rare in the fossil record, so every new find is important.”
Tseng and his fellow researchers wanted to find a way to bring Arctic hyenas to life, so they brought Canadian artist Julius Csotonyi on board. Everyone felt honored to work with this amazing artist, he tells Gizmodo.
“We wanted to portray the Arctic in early Spring, with local plants and animals,” he says. “We intended to be provocative with the pale fur of the hyenas, to speculate on potential camouflage these Arctic predators may have had. The baby mammoth represented some of the most common herbivores that may have fallen prey to the hyenas. Julius used a ‘photorealistic’ style of illustration that really draws us into frigid tundra of the Ice Age!”
The artwork creates an indelible image full of light and life, bringing an ancient world of the strange and yet familiar into focus.