fossils

The cave hyenas of ice age Europe

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Pete
Buchholz

Senior Writer
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Lucas
Lima

Staff Artist
A fossil-bearing cave in northeastern Spain that has yielded the most complete skeleton of the extinct cave hyena yet known, greatly improving on partial remains found elsewhere. The deposits in the cave, known as Las Aprendices, have been dated to approximately 144,000 years ago. The cave offers a snapshot of the environment and wildlife encountered by the first humans moving into Europe.

During the Pleistocene Epoch, from about 2.5 million years ago to ten thousand years ago, the Earth went through a series of ice ages. Northern continents were periodically trapped beneath enormous glaciers spanning hundreds of kilometers. These glacial periods were punctuated by warmer periods called interglacials that saw the great glaciers retreat.


The wildlife in Europe during the Pleistocene was much more varied than what is presently seen. They include the cave hyena, as well as cave bears, cave lions, woolly rhinoceroses, and several elephants. Many of these species have adaptations for the cold, including larger body size, thicker fur, and body fat.


Cave hyenas have been known from fossil remains since the 18th century. They were present in most of Europe from about 300,000 years ago to about 11,000 years ago. Like living hyenas, cave hyenas resembled wolves with long muscular necks and strong forelimbs. In contract to their living relatives, they are larger and more robust.


Cave hyenas are depicted in cave art at both Lascaux and Chauvet. The ancient artists show that these hyenas were spotted like their close relatives, the living Spotted Hyenas of Africa.


The Las Aprendices remains were described and illustrated by Víctor Sauqué and colleagues in early 2017. Their description of the Spanish skeleton helps solidify some aspects of cave hyena anatomy. They found that cave hyenas were 60% heavier than living spotted hyenas, with this specimen weighing over 100 kg (225 pounds). Comparing limb proportions of the fossil with spotted hyenas, Sauqué and colleagues determined that cave hyenas ran less than their African relatives. This, coupled with their larger size and robust build, led the researchers to speculate that cave hyenas could take on larger prey than spotted hyenas.


Cave hyenas lived alongside, and competed with, ancient humans. Neanderthals first entered Europe about the same time as cave hyenas. Fossil evidence shows that neanderthals and cave hyenas were in conflict over prey and prime cave sites.


When modern human entered Europe about 50,000 years ago they still encountered hyenas. Cave hyena populations declined starting about 20,000 years ago, and they became extinct more than 11,000 years ago. The reason for their extinction is unknown, but many authors regard it as a combination of changing climate and competition with humans.


Read the original research at Palaeontologia Electronica.

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Pete
Buchholz

Senior Writer


http://sulc.us/byg3s
http://www.eartharchives.org/articles/the-cave-hyenas-of-ice-age-europe/