If you think the direwolves from Game of Thrones can flash some bone-crushing fangs, they have nothing on these prehistoric hyenas that were massive as wolves—and could easily take down even bigger creatures.
This monster species of hyena, Chasmaporthetes, was recently found to have adapted to more types of environments than paleontologists thought it could when a pair of fossilized teeth unearthed in Canada’s Yukon Territory were finally examined. When these teeth first emerged decades ago, nobody bothered studying them further or publishing anything on them. Now they’re rearing a really ugly head.
Chasmaporthetes was first found to have lived in Mongolia. Members of the species then migrated as far as Kansas and even central Mexico via the Bering Strait land bridge, but the creature was no sweet summer child. The (not so) new teeth are proof that this 'direhyena' thrived as far as 4,000 miles from Mongolia and 2,500 miles north of Kansas. Meaning that even though it could bask in the subtropical heat or hang in the Midwest, it also had no problem surviving in the brutal cold.
"These rare records fill an important intermediary locale in the more than 10,000 km geographic distance between previously known New and Old World records of this lineage," paleontologist Jack Tseng and his research team wrote in a study recently published in the journal Open Quaternary. "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 teeth that gave this away weren’t even the menacing fangs you’d expect. They were a molar and a premolar, but easily distinguishable to Tseng and his team as remains of a Chasmaporthetes that lived between 850,000 to 1.4 million years ago.
Hyenas didn’t even originate in Africa, despite what The Lion King might have made you think. They are believed to have first appeared somewhere in Europe or Asia about 20 million years ago and later made the trek south to the African continent. While there is a chance this could be a new subspecies of Chasmaporthetes, and that isn’t being completely ruled out, there is not enough evidence here to confirm that.
"[We are] lacking more specific evidence to unambiguously assign the Old Crow fossils to any one of existing species of Chasmaporthetes other than from geographic delineation, [so] we reserve judgment on species designation," Tseng said.
These teeth were found in Old Crow Basin, a boneyard in northwest Canada that has yielded over 50,000 vertebrate fossils from over 80 species. Their age was difficult to determine because they were embedded in the inner bend of a river, evidence that the current washed them away from where the animal was originally buried.
The beasts once chewed on caribou, horses and, being scavengers as much as they were predators, even the carcasses of woolly mammoths. Whether they would have had a taste for our species remains unknown. They went extinct around 500,000 to 1 million years ago, so human flesh was never on the menu.
Still, you probably wouldn’t want to run into these things any more than you’d be willing to get in the way of any hyena, even if you were wielding Longclaw.