Nowadays, hyenas are only found in warm, dry ecosystems in Africa and Asia, but new research says they weren't always restricted to these regions.
Fossils analyzed by researchers from the University of Buffalo indicated that prehistoric hyenas lived in the Arctic during the last ice age.
Hyenas In The Arctic And Their Migration
The study published in the journal Open Quaternary identified two ice age fossils unearthed from Canada's Yukon Territory in the 1970s as the extinct Chasmaporthetes, also known as running hyenas. While earlier scientists believed the remains belonged to ancient hyenas, this new research confirms the theory and assigns it a specific genus.
Findings of the study offers an explanation of how hyenas arrived in North America. Prior to this discovery, bones of the Chasmaporthetes have been found as far north as Mongolia and the southern United States, but nowhere in between the two regions.
Study author and paleontologist Jack Tseng from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB explained in a statement that while fossils of the Chasmaporthetes have been found in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the southern United States, no one knew exactly how they got to North America. Now, the two hyena teeth the team analyzed offer new insights to answer these questions.
Their findings provide the first evidence of prehistoric hyenas in Beringia, which is a region including Alaska and Yukon Territory that connects Asia and North America when the sea levels are low. This is likely the path hyenas took to North America.
"Our previous understanding of where these far-ranging hyenas lived was based on fossil records in southern North America on one hand, and Asia, Europe and Africa on the other," Tseng continued. "These rare records of hyenas in the Arctic fill in a massive gap in a location where we expected evidence of their crossing between continents, but had no proof until now."
The fossils are estimated to be about 1.4 million to 850,000 years old, but hyenas are believed to have made their way to North America long before this, since fossils have been found in the continent as far back as 5 million years ago.
What Were These Ancient Hyenas Like?
Tseng told National Geographic that the Chasmaporthetes are likely to be faster animals than modern hyenas with longer legs that make them a better pursuit predator. These ancient creatures scavenged wherein they may also have hunted a number of animals, such as caribou, horses, and even young mammoths. Their fur are believed to have been dense with the ability to change color like Arctic hares and foxes.
"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 they can be successful at hunting in the snow," Tseng added.
There are only four existing species of hyenas, but their ancient family tree was far more diverse. As many as 70 species lived in the Northern Hemisphere in prehistoric times, but became extinct when the first humans arrived in the region between 1 to half a million years ago.