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Evolution of the Hyaenids

"Hyaenid" is the proper term for any member of the hyena family (the Hyaenidae), including the aardwolf.

Only four species of hyaenids still live today, but paleontologists know of at least 69 species from fossils. I cannot hope to describe them all here, so this is kind of a rough overview.

With their heavy jaws and sloping backs, modern hyenas may look vaguely "primitive," but in fact the first hyaenid that scientists can recognize as such dates back only between 18 and 17 million years ago -- the early Miocene Epoch. By that time, horses already had three toes instead of five and cats were recognizable, if only barely.

Of course, the ancestors of hyaenids must have separated from those of other carnivores millions of years before. Maybe they looked -- and lived -- much like genets such as this small-spotted genet, living in trees much of the time and eating almost anything, including fruit and insects. Most of the world was then covered with tropical or subtropical forests, with only a few areas of grassland.

At any rate, that first known hyena is Protictitherium gaillardi, which still basically looked like a genet or civet. It could retract its claws like a cat and spent much if not most of its time in the trees. Its diet may have been birds, small mammals and even insects.

There were several species of Protictitherium after P. gaillardi. Even though they were quite primitive, they managed to survive in the trees above their more advanced kin for millions of years, at last dying out between 5.3 and 4.2 million years ago.

However, other hyaenids soon spread into Europe and began spending more time on the ground. The first known European hyaenid was Plioviverrops orbignyi, a small critter that has been called a "mongoose-like insectivore/omnivore." Plioviverrops was specialized for eating insects, rather than the wider diet of Protictitherium. Its claws couldn't retract, and it probably spent most of its time on the ground rather than in trees, like this Angolan slender mongoose. It lived from 17 million to 5.3 million years ago, -- basically all through the Miocene Epoch.

Shortly after the Plioviverrops genus evolved, other hyaenids began getting bigger (along with changes in their teeth), as the warm forests and woods of the early Miocene Epoch opened up into grasslands and open forests with definite seasons. Around 10 million years ago, some hyaenids evolved into "running hyenas" who were better adapted to running down their prey like wolves than to crushing bones and scavenging; others became more like small wolves or jackals, pursuing a scavenging and rodent-hunting lifestyle. Finally, between 6 and 7 million years ago, some became fairly slow, bone-crushing animals (although the spotted hyena can run reasonably fast).

By the end of the Miocene, hyaenids apparently ran into problems. We don't know why for sure, but competition with the canids (wolves, foxes, jackals and other wild "dogs") may have been part of it. The canids evolved in North America, but they entered Eurasia seven million years ago and began to diversify. Between three and four million years ago -- the Pliocene -- the first wolf-sized canids arrived. Whatever the cause, the entire hyaenid family almost died out in Europe, except for a few running hyenas like Chasmaporthetes and a giant version of the spotted hyena, called the "cave hyena".

Two known genera of hyenas explored a whole new ecological niche -- Tongxinictis and Tungurictis. They may have been evolving to become like modern civets. Their teeth lost all ability to crush bone. But apparently this unique direction didn't work out, because they seem to have been rare and soon became extinct.

The aardwolf, a termite-eating hyaenid, must have split off from other hyaenids very early, because its weak jaws and feeble teeth are so different. But there are no hyaenid fossils that seem related. Oddly, its coat is colored just like the striped hyena's. This may mean the coat coloring is a very old one for hyenas and was shared by the earliest hyaenids.

By the time the climate had truly warmed after the last ice age, perhaps 10,000 years ago, only today's four species of hyaenids still survived. Of them all, only the striped hyena still ranges outside of Africa. Even the giant cave hyena of Europe became extinct. The hyaenid family appears to be in a state of irreversible decline, though the surviving species may well persist and evolve for millions of years longer if humans do not exterminate them.

Some sources I used for this page:
  • The Hyaenid Specialist Group's old page on ancient hyaenids, courtesy of the Wayback Machine. That website is gone, and their new one is still under construction after several years. My apologies.
  • Koepfli KP, Jenks SM, Eizirik E, Zahirpour T, Van Valkenburgh B, Wayne RK. Molecular systematics of the Hyaenidae: relationships of a relictual lineage resolved by a molecular supermatrix. Molecular phylogenetics and evolution. 2006 Mar 31;38(3):603-20. (What are these strange numbers and letters?)
  • Turner A, Antón M. Evolving Eden: an illustrated guide to the evolution of the African large-mammal fauna. Columbia University Press; 2004.
  • Wang X, Tedford RH, Antón M. Dogs: their fossil relatives and evolutionary history. Columbia University Press; 2010.
  • Werdelin L, Solounias N. The evolutionary history of Hyaenas in Europe and western Asia during the Miocene. Bernor, Raymond Louis, Volker Fahlbusch, and Hans-Walter Mittmann, in The evolution of western Eurasian Neogene mammal faunas. Columbia University Press, 1996.

Acknowledgements for photos:

  • Small-spotted genet --
  • Angolan slender mongoose -- Wikimedia Commons, original photo taken by Hans Hillewaert and released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

(Last link check May 5, 2022.)