Though today hyenas are often found stalking the African savannas and deserts, these predators once lived in a very different part of the world.
A study published Tuesday in journal “Open Quaternary” confirmed scientist’s suspicions that hyenas roamed the Arctic during the last ice age.
The study examined two fossil teeth that belonged to the Chasmaporthetes, an extinct genus of hyenas that’s also known as the “hunting or running hyena.”
Most of the hyena fossil record before this find has been rooted in Europe, Asia or Africa. Though hyena fossils have been found in North America, they were largely located in the southern United States.
“Our study is the first time we were able to demonstrate these hyenas were indeed living up there (in the Arctic),” says University at Buffalo biologist Jack Tseng, the lead author of the study.
Ancient hyenas probably traveled to North America from Asia via a land bridge before making their way south. These newly described fossils provide the first evidence we have that the ancient carnivores were active in Beringia, the area around the Bering Strait, which once connected present-day Russia and Alaska.
The importance of the fossils didn’t immediately click
Although the fossils were discovered in the Old Crow Basin in the 1970s, their significance wasn’t fully realized until now.
“They’ve been sitting, gathering dust in the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa,” Tseng told CNN.
About 10 years ago, Tseng heard from study co-author Lars Werdelin that a Yukon expedition had potentially uncovered some hyena fossils, but there wasn’t any form of identification for them.
Last year, Werdelin told Tseng that he had rediscovered some old letters written to his mentor from a paleontologist who was involved in the expeditions. From some old letters and photos of the hyena fossils, they were able to track down the two specimens at the Museum in Ottawa.
Researchers still have questions
The two teeth were among 50,000 specimens collected from the Old Crow Basin region.
“They’re incredibly rare, which makes them more difficult to understand,” Tseng said. “We don’t have the rest of their skeleton.”
Tseng said field work is still ongoing, and it’s possible that researchers will find more fossils in the future to understand more about these Arctic ancestors.