Tag Archives: hyena

Gruesome horde of thousands of animal bones leftovers from hyenas, including those from humans, found in Saudi Arabia

The Umm Jirsan lava tube in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Richard Clark-Wilson.

Although hyenas look and hunt like canines, they’re members of the mongoose family and therefore more closely related to a cat. However, just like dogs, hyenas have an affinity for hiding bones — it’s just that they can tend to go a bit overboard. Case in point, archaeologists were left speechless after they stumbled across a lava tube cavern in northwestern Saudi Arabia that is packed with hundreds of thousands of bones gathered by striped hyenas over the course of 7,000 years.

The ultimate hoarders

The gruesome floor filled with ancient animal bones was found deep in a lava tube system — a network of caverns carved by lava flow. The site, known as Umm Jirsan, was discovered in 2007, but it was only recently that researchers ventured deep into the dark caverns.

Mathew Stewart, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, led a team of researchers who cataloged nearly 2,000 bones and teeth belonging to at least 14 different species, including cattle, horses, camels, rodents, and even humans. Hundreds of thousands of other bones that are yet to be analyzed still lie on the cavernous floor.

Radiocarbon dating of the samples suggests the animal remains range from 439 to 6,839 years ago, which can only mean these lava tubes had been used as dens for at least 6,000 years.

Images of Saudi Arabia’s Umm Jirsan “hyena cave”: A: Entrance to the western passage and surrounding area. B: Entrance to the western passage. Note the team members on the right-hand wall for scale. C: The back chamber in which the excavation was carried out. D: Plotted sampling square before surface collection and excavation. Credit: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

The striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) is a bit smaller than spotted and brown hyenas. They have a broad head with dark eyes, a thick muzzle, and large, pointed ears, with a mane of long hair growing along the back. Their most striking feature is the legs: the front legs are much longer than the hind legs. This gives hyenas their distinctive walk, making them seem like they’re always limping uphill.

Hyenas are nocturnal or crepuscular predators that stay out of sight during the day, preferably in a natural cave or a burrow dug into the hillside. Sometimes they may take over the dens of other creatures where they transport bones to be eaten, fed to the young, or cached for later use.

It’s a well-established fact that hyena dens aren’t tidy at all, being normal to find leftover bones scattered across the floor. However, the lava tube horde stunned even the researchers who were most familiar with the hyenas.

Hyenas will eat an entire human body — except for the skull cap

Although they didn’t find hyenas at the site, the researchers are certain this was one of their dens judging from the cuts, bites, and digestion marks left on the bones. The presence of human skull fragments was also telling of hyena presence since the animals are known to scavenge through burial grounds in search of food. They normally will consume everything except for the top of the skull.

“The size and composition of the bone accumulation, as well as the presence of hyena skeletal remains and coprolites, suggest that the assemblage was primarily accumulated by striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena),” the authors wrote in a study published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Molars and mandibles belonging to wild cows, rabbits, wild goats, camels, and wolves. Credit: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

It’s highly unlikely that the six skullcaps with gnaw marks on them found at the site belong to humans who were killed by a hyena hunting party. The mammals are mostly scavengers but when they do hunt they prefer to target hares, birds, and antelopes. However, the possibility that some hunter-gatherers were killed by hyena packs cannot be entirely ruled out.

Today, striped hyenas are a threatened species in Saudia Arabia but thousands of years ago they were common across the Arabian Peninsula. The current investigation at Umm Jirsan was undertaken as part of the Paleodeserts Project, a large-scale research initiative aimed at tracking environmental and climate change in the Arabian Desert region over the past one million years.

Of particular interest is how human and animal migration in the region waxed and waned with the changing climate. This is a challenging goal since the unforgiving desert climate in the region tends to destroy any exposed organic matter. Luckily, the Umm Jirsan lava tubes create a perfect time capsule that will give scientists material to work with for years to come. 

Ancient hyenas hunted in the Arctic millions of years ago

Ice age hyenas may have hunted caribou and horses around the Arctic area or scavenged carcasses in the cold tundra, a study of two enigmatic teeth suggests.

An artist’s rendering of ancient Arctic hyenas belonging to the genus Chasmaporthete, known as the “hunting or running hyena.” Image credits: Julius T. Csotonyi

Lions and tigers usually take all the admiration, but you could hardly imagine a more robust and adaptable predator than the hyena. Hyenas outnumber lions and use their larger populations and social skills to compete with even predators such as lions.

Nowadays, hyenas roam Asian and African savanna ecosystems, but researchers suspect that they can adapt to almost any habitat from grasslands and savannas to woodlands, sub-deserts, and even mountains. Back in the day, they may have spread even farther, going as far as the Arctic.

The key to this finding are two Ice Age teeth, which paleontologists think belonged to an ancient hyena species — Chasmaporthetes, the “running hyena.”

Now, as if hyenas weren’t impressive enough, this finding also helps explain one of the mysteries about how hyenas achieved to their current geographical spread. Previously, Chasmaporthetes fossils had been found as far north as Mongolia in Asia and the southern United States in North America, with no sites in between.

“Fossils of this genus of hyenas had been found in Africa, Europe and Asia, and also in the southern United States. But where and how did these animals get to North America? The teeth we studied, even though they were just two teeth, start to answer those questions,” says paleontologist Jack Tseng, PhD, the paper’s first author and an assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

Humans also moved from Asia through Beringia to the Americas, though much later than hyenas.

The new findings seem to suggest that hyenas crossed through Beringia, the area which, in periods of low sea level, connects Asia to North America in places like Alaska and Yukon. From there, they moved south as far as Mexico. But their ability to pass through this area shows incredible hyena resilience, researchers say.

“It is amazing to imagine hyenas thriving in the harsh conditions above the Arctic Circle during the ice age,” says study co-author Grant Zazula, PhD, Government of Yukon paleontologist. “Chasmaporthetes probably hunted herds of ice age caribou and horses or scavenged carcasses of mammoths on the vast steppe-tundra that stretched from Siberia to Yukon Territory.”

The teeth were dated to between 1.4 million and 850,000 years old, but these aren’t the first hyenas to make the journey — the earliest known hyena fossils on the American continent date to about 5 million years ago.

The teeth were actually discovered earlier, during a 1970s expedition in the northern Yukon Territory, and it drew Tseng’s attention a couple of years ago. An expert in hyena paleontology, he identified it as belonging to the genus Chasmaporthetes and realized that this is the first evidence of hyenas crossing Beringia.

Hyenas disappeared from North America long before the first people arrived there, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. However, it’s possible that they were outcompeted by the short-faced bear Arctodus simus, which lived across North America until the end of the ice age about 12,000 years ago.

Nowadays, there are only four living species of hyena, but back in the day, hyenas were a more varied and diverse group — and may have played a more important role than previously thought.

“The Pleistocene age of these fossils, together with its Arctic Circle occurrence, necessitate a rethinking of the role of large-bodied hunter-scavengers in Ice Age megafaunas in North America,” the study concludes.

The study First Fossils of Hyenas (Chasmaporthetes, Hyaenidae, Carnivora) from North of the Arctic Circle was published in the Open Quaternary journal.

Why wolves and hyenas are hunting together in the Middle East

An extremely unusual behavior has been reported by Indian researchers in the middle east: a pack of wolves has been spotted hunting with a hyena, something that has never been reported before.

Striped Hyena. Image via Department of Wildlife Sciences, Aligarh Muslim University, India, Dr. Shamshad Alam

Different species of predators don’t really get along. Most of the time, they compete for prey. Sometimes, they fight for it, and other times they even kill each other. Wolves are social creatures, but they almost never accept outside species in their pack – even dogs, they chase away or hunt more often than they accept. While spotted hyenas are also social creatures, striped hyenas are often solitary. So when researchers found  hyena tracks mixed with gray wolf tracks, they knew something strange was up.

“Animal behavior is often more flexible than described in textbooks,” said Vladimir Dinets, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “When necessary, animals can abandon their usual strategies and learn something completely new and unexpected. It’s a very useful skill for people, too.”

They followed the tracks several times, including a clear layer of moist sand imprinted with hyena and wolf tracks. Initially, they thought the hyena came after the wolves (or the other way around), but this was shown not to be the case. In some places, the prints of one of the three wolves was on top of the prints of the hyena. In other places, the hyena print was on top of a wolf print.

Finally, after four years, they managed to spot the wolves with the hyena. Beniamin Eligulashvili, a zoologist in Israel, witnessed the pack, recalling that the hyena traveled with the wolves, as a member of the pack.

“The hyena was not following the wolves, but moving in the middle of the pack,” said the study, which both men authored.

This likely benefits both sizes. The Negev Desert is one of the harshest environments in the range of either of these animals, and both species need all the help they can get. Wolves are better hunters (especially in a pack) than the hyenas. They’re also faster and more agile. However, the hyena has a finer sense of smell and can break larger bones, excavating garbage and ripping open tin cans. In the desert, food is very, very scarce and they need each other to survive.

Interspecies cooperative hunting is rare, but perhaps not as rare as we thought, Dinets argues.


Human hair found in prehistoric hyena feces

Human hair found in fossilized hyena poop suggests that ancient humans were sometimes on the menu of other animals.


The fossilized dung, part of a “hyena latrine,” will be described in the upcoming October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science; the sample has been subjected to a number of tests. The sample is about 257,000 years old.

“Based on the fossil hairs identified here, this research has established that brown hyenas shared the Sterkfontein Valley with hominins, warthog, impala, zebra and kudu,” authors Phillip Taru and Lucinda Backwell of the University of the Witwatersrand wrote. They continued, “Apart from humans, these animals are associated with savanna grasslands, much like the Highveld environment of today.”

However, while this is definitely possible, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the hyena hunted and ate a man – it’s just as likely for the animal to scavage the human body. Also, perhaps the hyena somehow consumed a blob of human hair. Hey, it happens – if it’s hungry, it tastes all sorts of things. Either way, the finding confirms inland occupation by archaic Homo sapiens or modern humans. But there’s another useful clue:

“A lack of hair scales has been documented in human hair subject to pathology, a condition observed when studying our diabetic colleague’s hair as part of the human comparative sample,” Taru and Backwell explained.

But life in a cave provided for many a hair days:

“Abrasion of the hair resulting from inhabiting rock crevices” could have led to lack of scales, according to the authors.

It’s impressive to me just how many things we can find out from some hair in poop. Future investigations will likely focus on the same region in an attempt to find out more about human lifestyle 257.000 years ago.

Picture source.