How Did Prehistoric Hyenas Reach the Americas? Through the Arctic

Two teeth found in the Yukon that moldered in a museum drawer for half a century came back to the spotlight and behold, they changed the history of the hyena

There used to be over a hundred hyena species, and rather like early humans, these animals were on the move.
Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock

Hyenas, the misunderstood relatives of the cat family that can be found scavenging carcasses from Africa to India, once ranged much further. Five million years ago, these intrepid feliforms also thronged the Americas, which posed quite the paleontological conundrum. How on earth did they get there?

A new analysis of an old discovery in the annals of hyenahood solves the mystery. Exactly two fossilized teeth were discovered in Yukon Territory in Canada, confirming that hyenas existed in the Arctic as well.

During Ice Ages, when ocean levels were low, they crossed the Beringia land bridge that connected Asia and America, says a new study led by the University at Buffalo, published Tuesday in the journal Open Quaternary

Let it be noted that the four species of hyena existing today (one being the termite-eating aardwolf) are a pathetic remnant of what had once been a magnificent family. There used to be over a hundred hyena species, and rather like early humans, these animals were on the move. Thriving in arctic conditions, however, was thought to be beyond their capacities.

The aardwolfYouTube

In fact, the two teeth in question had been found in the 1970s and from the get-go, the first paleontologists to study them thought they belonged to hyenas. But closer analysis would wait for nearly half a century, mainly because the teeth were flung into a drawer in Ottawa's Museum of Nature and that’s where they stayed, until paleontologist Jack Tseng revisited the topic.

Until now, nobody thought the powerful, versatile animals could possibly live that far north during the Ice Age. But they did, says the paper – and it wasn’t some sort of hairy hyena parallel to the woolly mammoth, it’s good old Chasmaporthetes, otherwise known as the "running hyena" because of their unusually long legs.

Chasmaporthetes is now extinct, but from almost 5 million years ago to a mere 780,000 years ago, it thronged throughout Africa and Eurasia and, as we see, everywhere its paws could go, ranging as far south as Mexico. This is the extent of what we know now; it may come to light that they traveled further south.

“It is amazing to imagine hyenas thriving in the harsh conditions above the Arctic Circle during the ice age,” says study co-author Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the government of Yukon. “Chasmaporthetes probably hunted herds of ice age caribou and horses or scavenged carcasses of mammoths on the vast steppe-tundra that stretched from Siberia to Yukon Territory.”

Hyenas hunting in ZambiaYouTube

The Yukon hyena teeth seem to be between 850,000 to 1.4 million years old – which indicates that the feliform hyenas had quite the habit of crossing the Bering bridge, since hyena fossils have been found in the Americas dating back 5 million years.

To be clear, hyenas are not dogs, though they sort of look canine. Nor are they quite cats. But science has established that they are closer to cats than to dogs.

And before we disparage their dining habits, it bears remembering that hyenas can and do aso hunt. Also, science suspects the earliest hominin meat-eaters also scavenged carcasses, rather than “nobly” hunting.

The role of prehistoric man in leading various species to extinction is often uncertain. In this case it’s crystal clear that people had nothing to do with the passing of the North American and Arctic hyena population: Chasmaporthetes disappeared from these places before people had even evolved. It might have been out-competed by the short-faced bear Arctodus simus, which is indeed a candidate for decimation by humans. The unfortunate bear died out in America 12,000 years ago, some few thousand years after people and their spears arrived.