crocuta spelaea (Cave hyena hyena)
Phonetic: Cro-cu-tah cro-cu-tah spe-lay-ah.
Classification: Chordata, Mammalia, Carnivora, Hyaenidae.
Species: Crocuta crocuta spelaea.
Size: Roughly 1 meter high at the shoulder, 1.5 meters long, 225 kilograms in weight.
Known locations: Across Eurasia.
Time period: Pleistocene.
Fossil representation: Multiple remains.
hyena is so closely related to todays spotted hyena (Crocuta
crocuta) from Africa that it is actually considered a sub
this genus. Some however have still raised the notion about whether
remains named as cave hyena should be classed as a distinct sub group,
although the majority of palaeontologists agree that they are
different enough to keep them separated. This difference is seen in
the longer femur (thigh bone) and humerus (upper foreleg bone)
of the cave hyena, something that is seen as an adaptation for more
As can be guessed by the name cave hyenas are associated with living in caves, although they may have also taken up dens in more open areas when climatic conditions were suitable. By taking up residence in caves, cave hyenas could have sheltered from the worst of the cold conditions of the Pleistocene ice ages. This would have been a safer environment for them to raise young, as well as drag back bones from scavenged carcasses which could be gnawed upon at leisure. This explains the wide variety of different animal remains that can be found in caves that had regular hyena habitation.
Cave hyenas were predators and scavengers of the open plains much like their spotted African cousins are today. While hyenas are better known as scavengers, they have been well documented hunting and killing their own prey. While study of animal remains in cave hyena dens has yielded the conclusion that cave hyenas would eat any animal they could get, there is an overwhelming abundance of remains that are from wild horses like Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) and huge woolly rhinoceroses like Coelodonta. Both of these animals were abundant upon the open plains of Pleistocene Eurasia, and their increased presence of remains in cave hyena dens strongly suggests that these animals were actively preyed upon by cave hyena. Cave hyena also seem to have fed upon the cave bear Ursus spelaeus, although it’s not certain if this is active predation or scavenging of an already dead bear.
Cave hyenas have a long association with Neanderthals, early homonids that were closely related to the ancestors of modern humans. One area of conflict between cave hyenas and Neanderthals was competition for cave space as both used caves for shelter, with some areas revealing that some caves that were inhabited by cave hyenas would be taken over by Neanderthals, to be taken over by cave hyenas again, to later be re-occupied by Neanderthals, that would again be later populated by cave hyena in an ever repeating process. This could suggest that one group would drive the other out, just for a stronger group to retake the cave by force, or that the occupants would only occupy certain caves for so long, say the winter months before moving on to new areas in search of food.
Caves were not the only point of potential conflict between Neanderthals and cave hyena, as since Neanderthals hunted animals themselves, cave hyena, quite possibly in large groups, could have challenged the Neanderthals for the carcass. More grisly fossil evidence also suggests that Neanderthals were even eaten by cave hyena, perhaps actively hunted out in the open or perhaps caught sleeping in a cave that was raided in the night by hyena. There is also evidence and theories to suggest that cave hyena were responsible for preventing early humans from crossing the Bering Strait land bridge from Asia into North America. The earliest known remains of humans in Alaska date back towards the end of the Pleistocene when the cave hyena had pretty much vanished from the landscape. The Neanderthals in Europe did manage to do one service for future generations however, and this is their cave art that has been left in several locations. Cave hyena in this art have been depicted as having dark spots on their coats just like spotted hyena do today, revealing that cave hyena did not just have skeletons similar to spotted hyena, but also an external appearance like them as well.
To date there is no definitive evidence for cave hyena hunting in groups, but then there is also no proof that they were solitary creatures either. Their closest living relative the spotted hyena, which currently fills a similar ecological niche, is usually seen living in groups and by association is quite reasonable to assume that cave hyena also lived in groups. How big these groups were depends upon the environments ability to support it, and given the harsher climate conditions of Eurasia in the Pleistocene it’s possible to conclude that on average, packs of cave hyena were not made up of as many individuals as their modern African relatives.
As powerful and as dangerous cave hyenas were, they could not take on the greatest challenge of them all; climate change. During the closing stages of the Pleistocene the open plains that cave hyena called home began to be replaced by forest, which subsequently saw a decline in their favoured prey species which were not as suited to these new ecosystems. The increasing expanse of forests also brought increased competition from other predators such as wolves with it. Wolves had always been active in the same lands as cave hyena, but the two never really competed before as wolves were always more active in the forests while cave hyena were on the open plains. The increase in forests was therefore in favour of the wolves that were already adapted to this environment, and with wolves also hunting in packs, cave hyenas could not rely upon an advantage of numbers to compete.
With not as much large prey around and increased competition from better adapted predators, cave hyena had to make do with smaller animals that offered less sustenance. This is where the larger physical size of the cave hyena began to count against it as a larger body requires a greater intake of food. As soon as the cave hyena was living just below the bare minimum level of food required to survive their fate was already decided.
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- Gnawed Bones Tell Tales - ASU Research - Lynette Summerill - 2003.
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- Were the Late Pleistocene climatic changes responsible for the disappearance of the European spotted hyena populations? - Quaternary Science Reviews, 29: 2027-2035. - S. Varela, J. M. Lobo, J. Rodríguez & P. Batra - 2010.
- Are herbivores and spotted hyena extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene related? - Zona Arqueologica, 13: 76-91. - S. Varela, J. M. Lobo & J. Rodríguez - 2010.
- Specialized horse killers in Europe – foetal horse remains in the Late Pleistocene Srbsko Chlum-Komín Cave hyena den in the Bohemian Karst (Czech Republic) and actualistic comparisons to modern African spotted hyenas as zebra hunters. - Quaternary International, vol. 220, no. 1-2, pp. 174-187. - C. Diedrich - 2010.
- Coprolites as a source of information on the genome and diet of the cave hyena. - Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 279 (1739): 2825–2830. - C. Bon, V. Berthonaud, F. Maksud, K. Labadie, J. Poulain, F. Artiguenave, P. Wincker, J.-M. Aury & J.-M. Elalouf - 2012.