An artist’s rendering of ancient Arctic hyenas belonging to the genus Chasmaporthetes. A new study reports that two enigmatic fossil teeth found in Yukon Territory in Canada belonged to Chasmaporthetes, making the teeth the first known fossils of hyenas found in the Arctic. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

Ancient hyenas used to roam Canadian Arctic: study

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When we think of hyenas, we usually picture them in the savannah or in a dry environment surrounded by lions or elephants, but this has not always been the case. Thanks to new research, we now know with certainty that ancient hyenas once lived in the Canadian Arctic regions.

The study led by the University at Buffalo reveals that two ice age fossil teeth discovered in Yukon Territory, inside the Canadian Arctic circle belonged to the so-called “running hyena” Chasmaporthetes. The discovery helps us understand how these animals reached North America from Asia.

We spoke to Jack Tseng, the first author of the study and assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University at Buffalo.

This ice age fossil tooth — tucked away for years in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature. This tooth, found in 1977, and one other are the first known hyena fossils found in the Arctic. (Grant Zazula / Government of Yukon)

The discovery

These two fossils are not a new discovery in themselves. They were found almost four decades ago in the Yukon region among tens of thousands of fossils.

Most of the fossils that were subsequently studied and researched were large animals like mammoths, horses and camels. And these teeth being very rare and from, a potentially rare specie, that needed special attention were simply not studied in depth at the time.Jack Tseng, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University at Buffalo

The two fossils were first identified as belonging to some kind of hyenas and were stored in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario.

It is not until last February, when Jack Tseng came to the Canadian capital and compared the two fossils to a global sample of hyena fossils found elsewhere, that they were able to pin down exactly the identity of this particular hyena.

Jack Tseng, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at the University at Buffalo explains how they made this discovery. (DOUGLAS LEVERE/University at Buffalo)

Understand how hyenas got to North America

Scientists long suspected that hyenas crossed from Asia to North America thanks to discoveries of fossils on both sides of the Pacific: in southern North America, on the one hand, and in Asia, Europe and Africa on the other.

This kind of migration was not unique to these mammals as many animals did the same over the years. Scientists think they did so when they discovered new environmental opportunities, new areas. In the case of these hyenas, the assumptions are that they moved when a geologic bridge formed between North America and Asia as sea levels changed, explains M. Tseng.

And this kind of migration also applied later to early humans who colonised North America by travelling on foot.

They must have crossed over Beringia, the northern region between Yukon, Alaska and Siberia at one point. It’s just that we’ve never had physical evidence to show when and how that migration may have occurred.Jack Tseng, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University at Buffalo
This tooth, found in 1973, and one other are the first known hyena fossils found in the Arctic. (Photo: Jack Tseng)

But thanks to this new discovery, scientists now have evidence of this migration, but it also helps them to better understand hyenas.

These two fossils essentially gave us now hard evidence that these hyenas were not only able to travel through the region, perhaps they were there, they lived there, up the Yukon in the Arctic circle, long enough that they were actually preserved as fossils. And that changes our basic assumption about how hyenas were able to live.Jack Tseng, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University at Buffalo

If we look at hyenas today, they are mostly found in dryer regions, close to the equator and they live in open plains.

Now, compared to what we know about the Arctic region, there was much less biodiversity and environmental conditions were much harsher there. This difference prompts scientists to rethink hyenas’ adaptability.

Jack Tseng, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at the University at Buffalo talks about the significance of this discovery. (DOUGLAS LEVERE/University at Buffalo)

Hyenas existed for about 4 million years in North America

According to the different discoveries, scientists can say that hyenas arrived on the northern American continent around 5 million years ago and probably disappeared just over one million years ago.

That’s not a long time for mammal species on average. A mammal species can survive for a couple of million years in the fossil record.Jack Tseng, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University at Buffalo
The Old Crow River region (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation) in Yukon Territory in Canada is known for its rich deposits of fossils. The ancient hyena teeth are among tens of thousands of fossils recovered from the region in the last century. (Duane Froese / University of Alberta)

The study reveals that the extinction of hyena in North America can be explained by different factors:

  • Several potential competitors—other predators like bones cracking canidae from the dog family. These could have been ancestors of modern wolves, hunting dogs as well as gigantic short faced bears. Hyenas could have not been able to compete with them.
  • Their environment was changing. Their resources dried up or the climate got much colder.

Now that we know that North American hyenas were ranging all the way from the Arctic down to Mexico. What made them go away? Apparently they seemed very successful at one time because whether it was a warmer environment in Mexico or a very cold environment up in the Arctic they were able to survive long enough to be fossilised.Jack Tseng, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University at Buffalo

To answer that question but also understand how they adapted to their new environment, palaeontologists would need to find a bigger fossil of such hyenas. These seem to be pretty rare as no one as found one in years of expedition but Jack Tseng and other scientists are ready to continue their expeditions to find that answer.

Jack Tseng, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at the University at Buffalo talks about ancient hyenas living in North America. (DOUGLAS LEVERE/University at Buffalo)

You can listen to the full interview with Jack Tseng here: 

Jack Tseng, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at the University at Buffalo talks about his new study. (DOUGLAS LEVERE/University at Buffalo)
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