If we think of a hyena, it is common to imagine it in a dry environment in the middle of the Asian savannah or, even more famous, those that inhabit the African continent. In addition, animated cinema has introduced into the collective imagination a characterization of these animals as if they were always laughing, due to the disposition of their snout, which looks like a grimace in the form of a smile, and the sound they emit, which reminds us a mocking laugh. However, we don’t think anyone would dream of imagining a hyena in the middle of a snowy landscape. Instead, a scientific study places ancient relatives of hyenas in the Arctic.
Jack Tseng , of the University at Buffalo in New York, has led research on the dispersal of Chasmaporthetes , an extinct genus of these animals known as “running hyenas” in reference to their long, thin legs that allowed them to travel great distances.
Scientists identified two fossilized teeth from the remains of more than 50,000 fossil mammal specimens collected during the 1970s at Old Crow Basin, a major site in northwestern Canada. The finding indicates that hyenas reached the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge .
Previously, the remains of these hunting and scavenging animals confirmed their presence in the southern United States and central Mexico. But we did not know how they had gotten there . To tell the truth, the evidence was lacking, but it was suspected that, like many other animal species and humans themselves , they crossed from the Old to the New World via the Bering. Therefore, the geographical position in which the fossils have appeared confirms previous hypotheses about the route followed by hyenas to the center of the American continent .
The teeth have an approximate date between 1.4 million years and 850,000 years. This timeline places hyenas in the Arctic during the Pleistocene Ice Age, which ended about 11,700 years ago. During this period, what is now the Bering Strait was a land connection between Asia and the Americas due to ice buildup and lower sea level than today.
“These rare records occupy an important middle ground in the geographical distance of more than 10,000 km between previously known Old and New World records of this lineage. The Pleistocene age of these fossils, coupled with their occurrence in the Arctic Circle, necessitates a rethinking of the role of large-bodied hunter-scavengers in North American Ice Age megafauna.”
And it is that, despite the large number of fossils available in the area, it is not usual to find remains of large predatory mammals. As if that were not enough, the study of these fossils is a very complex puzzle. The teeth were unearthed at the aforementioned site, which specialists call the “fossil supermarket” . It is an area in which the water currents play at being paleontologists. They drag fossil-laden sediments that they deposit along the bends of the river. Access to these treasures is not easy, but the reward is always up to par. For now , there are more than 50,000 fossils of mammals that have been identified . Of course, the currents are bad companions and the remains are found in a kind of puzzle from the past with pieces that make up a result that is not always known. A job only for specialists, do not try it at home.
Without going any further, these hyena teeth have gone unnoticed for more than four decades. A workbook of archaeologist Brenda Beebe showed some photographs of these fossils, which served as an initial clue for Tseng and his team to dedicate their efforts to identify these hyena teeth.
“Hyenas are one of the groups with a really patchy fossil record in North America. This finding adds to our knowledge of how the species arrived.”
The research serves to motivate other studies that continue to investigate the migration of carnivores and other species through the Bering during the Ice Age , to continue putting pieces in the puzzle of life on the American continent.
Lanese, N. 2019. Hyenas roamed the Arctic during the last ice age. sciencenews.org.
Tseng, ZJ 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.