Hyenas don’t really get much recognition compared to other animals in Africa. We remember them mostly for their hideous laugh and sinister intentions from Disney’s Lion King movie. However, new study of ancient hyena teeth shows that these predators didn’t just live in the African savannas but also in the Arctic plains during the last ice age.
For a new study published in the journal Open Quaternary, scientists analyzed teeth that belonged to the Chasmaporthetes, an extinct species of hyenas which was also called the “hunting or running hyena.” While the most of the tracked fossil record locates this species in Europe, Asia and Africa, the new evidence of the fossilized teeth indicates that the hyena species roamed the Arctic plains. Scientists previously tracked hyena fossils in northern America, although the fossils were mostly discovered in what is now the southern United States.
“Fossils of this genus of hyenas had been found in Africa, Europe and Asia, and also in the southern United States. 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,” study author and paleontologist Jack Tseng of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at University at Buffalo said in a statement.
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Ancient hyenas likely got to North America from Asia via a long-suspected land bridge and then then traveled south. The ancient hyena teeth give scientists evidence that these ancient predators used to live in Beringia, the area around the Bering Strait that’s believed to have held the connection between today’s Russia and Alaska. The fossils were unearthed in the Old Crow Basin in the 1970s, and researchers didn’t see much of its significance until now.
“They’ve been sitting, gathering dust in the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa,” Tseng told CNN in an interview.
Study co-author Lars Werdelin told Tseng about a a Yukon expedition roughly 10 years ago. He said researchers likely uncovered hyena fossils, but that they didn’t have any way to identify them. Last year Werdelin told Tseng that he found some old letters to his mentor about a paleontologist who was involved with those hyena expeditions. Based on old photos of the hyena fossils, they were able to separate two specimens at the museum.
“They’re incredibly rare, which makes them more difficult to understand,” Tseng told CNN. “We don’t have the rest of their skeleton.”
According to Tseng, the field work continues, but this study is important because ancient hyena teeth may provide more understanding about related carnivores that once roamed the Arctic plains.