Hyenas Once Lived above Arctic Circle

Paleontologists have found two fossilized teeth of extinct cursorial hyenas (genus Chasmaporthetes) in the remote Old Crow River region in northern Yukon Territory, Canada.

An artist’s rendering of ancient Arctic hyenas belonging to the genus Chasmaporthetes. Image credit: Julius T. Csotonyi.

An artist’s rendering of ancient Arctic hyenas belonging to the genus Chasmaporthetes. Image credit: Julius T. Csotonyi.

The newly-described fossil teeth of Chasmaporthetes hyenas are most likely between about 1.4 million and 850,000 years old, with ages more likely closer to the older figure.

“Fossils of this genus had been found in Africa, Europe and Asia, and also in the southern United States,” said Dr. Jack Tseng, a paleontologist at the University at Buffalo.

“But where and how did these animals get to North America? The teeth we studied, even though they were just two teeth, start to answer those questions.”

Ancient hyenas likely entered North America via Beringia, an area, including Alaska and Yukon Territory, that connects Asia with North America during periods of low sea levels. From there, the animals made their way south all the way to Mexico.

The newly-described teeth are important in part because they provide the first proof of ancient hyenas living in Beringia.

“It is amazing to imagine hyenas thriving in the harsh conditions above the Arctic Circle during the Ice Age,” said Dr. Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature.

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.”

“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,” Dr. Tseng said.

“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.”

Hyenas disappeared from North America before the first people arrived.

Although the reasons for this extinction between one million and 500,000 years ago remain unclear, it is possible that the animals’ bone-crushing, scavenging niche was replaced by the impressive short-faced bear Arctodus simus.

The research is published in the journal Open Quaternary.

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Z.J. Tseng et al. 2019. First Fossils of Hyenas (Chasmaporthetes, Hyaenidae, Carnivora) from North of the Arctic Circle. Open Quaternary 5 (1): 6; doi: 10.5334/oq.64

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