When did it become extinct? The giant hyena is thought to have become extinct around 500,000 years ago.
Where did it live? The remains of this animal have been found in Africa, Europe, and all the way through Asia to China.
The spotted hyena is a beautifully adapted predator and scavenger of the African continent. These animals have a long evolutionary heritage of at least 70 species extending back at least 15 million years. The earliest known hyenas were mongoose-sized animals that were probably insectivorous or omnivorous, but over time, they evolved into specialized hunters and scavengers, the largest of which was the giant hyena.
In general appearance, the giant hyena was similar to the spotted hyena, only much bigger. It was a powerfully built animal, and a specimen in its prime probably weighed the same as a big lioness, around 150 kg, or possibly more (for comparison, a really big spotted hyena weighs around 90 kg). Due to its short legs, it was only marginally taller at the shoulder than a spotted hyena (about 1 m), and its big skull was equipped with some formidable teeth, very well suited to dismembering carcasses.
The spotted hyena is often portrayed as nothing but an idle, scavenging animal that depends on the kills made by lions and other cats for its food. It's true that the spotted hyena is certainly not above scavenging, but it is also a very accomplished predator, able to use teamwork to bring down antelopes and animals as large as zebras. What can we deduce about the life of the extinct giant hyena from the life of the spotted hyena? With its relatively short legs, the giant hyena was not built for long-distance pursuits like its living relative, but this animal was very much of its age, and some of the herbivores that fell prey to the carnivores of the Pleistocene were less fleet of foot than the ungulates of the African plains of today. We only have to look at the top predators that lived alongside the giant hyena: big scimitar cats and other large felines built for strength, not stamina. The giant hyena may have been able to catch its own prey, especially if it hunted in groups like the living spotted hyena, but scavenging in groups was probably its mainstay. A kill made by one of the many big cats of the day would have quickly attracted the attention of a group of giant hyenas. A cat like Homotherium probably defended its kill from one or two giant hyenas, but a bigger group of these scavengers was more of a problem. The bite of a giant hyena was very powerful, and a bad wound can be a death sentence for a predator; therefore the owner of the kill may have been forced to begrudgingly surrender the carcass to the hyena clan.
With the owner of a kill driven away, the giant hyena could do what it did best and fill its capacious stomach with meat, and use its bolt-cropper jaws to shear the bones of the carcass and carry certain choice cuts back to its lair, where cubs were probably waiting for food. In China, there is clear evidence of the giant hyena carrying food back to its lair. Zhoukoudian is a cave system near Beijing, and it is here that paleontologists found a great haul of mammal bones in the 1930s, including the remains of several giant hyenas. The hyenas had undoubtedly used these caves as lairs, and this is where they brought bits of carcasses to feed their growing cubs. Amazingly, the remains of at least 40 Homo erectus individuals were also unearthed in the caves. The question is, did our ancient ancestors live in these caves, or were their dismembered remains carried there by the giant hyenas? Homo erectus was definitely capable of making and using weapons (see the entry "Homo erectus" in chapter 6), but was this hominid capable of fending off a group of 150-kg bone breakers? Five hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors were on the menu for lots of different predators, and even if giant hyenas never hunted Homo erectus directly, the carcass of one of these hominids, killed by one of the big cats, was certainly big enough to arouse the interest of these scavengers.
The most recent known remains of the giant hyena are around 500,000 years old, but we have no firm date for when this species became extinct. We do know that the youngest fossils of the giant hyena correspond to a time when the earth was entering another of the glaciations that have punctuated the last 2 million years. The climate became drier and the verdant habitats available to the big herbivores dwindled. As their food disappeared, many of these megaherbivores disappeared, and so, too, did their predators, including some of the large cats. Primarily a scavenger, the giant hyena was dependent on these large predators for food, and as they disappeared, it, too, was doomed.
♦ The general appearance of hyenas suggests a close evolutionary link to the dog family; however, hyenas are an offshoot of the cat branch of the carnivores, and therefore they are more closely related to cats than dogs.
♦ In contrast to group-living felines, like lions, female spotted hyenas are the dominant sex, and each hyena clan is ruled by an alpha female. Taking charge has had some unusual effects on the female's anatomy as the increased levels of testosterone coursing through the blood of a female spotted hyena has led to the development of a false penis and scrotum. The pseudopenis is actually a hugely modified clitoris, which is erectile just like a real penis. The pseudoscrotum is formed from the exterior skin of the female genitals.
♦ Like our ancestor Homo erectus, the giant hyena evolved in Africa and then proceeded to disperse into Europe and Asia, reaching as far east as China.
Further Reading: Turner, A., and M. Anton. "The Giant Hyaena, Pachycrocuta brevirostris (Mammalia, Carnivora, Hyaenidae)." GEOBIOS 29 (1996): 455-68.
Was this article helpful?