Crocuta crocuta spelaea: Laughing in the Face of Extinction

Article by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Jack Wood, Lewis Haller, Adam Manning, and Harry T. Jones

Name: Crocuta crocuta spelaea
Name Meaning: Cave Hyaena
Age: Pleistocene
Diet: Carnivore
Weight: Over 100 kg
Location: Europe

Crocuta crocuta spelaea is an extinct species of hyaena that is genetically related to Crocuta crocuta crocuta, the modern East-African spotted hyaena. However, this Pleistocene predator is estimated to have weighed near double the maximum average size of its extant African relative, and so narrowly manages to be categorised as a prehistoric megacarnivore. During the Late Pleistocene, this species inhabited the majority of Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Urals.

Two Crocuta crocuta spelaea enjoying a meal, snarling at one another as they devour a carcass. Artwork by Lucas Lima.

The recognition of Crocuta crocuta spelaea as a distinct fossil species took many years, namely because initial authors misidentified the remains that they came across. Firstly, Johann Christian Kundmann published information on a piece of lower jaw, which he thought was from a calf, in 1737. Then, in 1774, Eugenius Johann Christoph Esper described teeth which he believed belonged to a lion, and in 1784, Collini described a hyaena skull as the skull of a seal. However, Georges Cuvier declared the descriptions of 1737 and 1774 as errors, and instead said that the remains were more likely from a hyaena. Cuvier went on to give the first full description of a cave hyaena in 1812, in which he noted numerous localities with fossil hyaena distinct from any living form. In 1822, William Buckland established the first fossils of the cave hyaena in England and showed that the caves where the fossils were found were used as dens. Still, it wasn’t until 1823 that Georg August Goldfuss applied the individual title of Hyaena spelaea. This has since been changed to illustrate that the cave hyaena is in fact part of the Crocuta genus.

At least eight Upper Pleistocene caves in the Bohemian Karst, Prague, were used by a minimum of 48 Crocuta crocuta spelaea individuals as seasonal dens in which they could store prey and raise their young. The bones of animals such as Equus ferus przewalskii (a type of horse), Bison priscus (steppe bison), Rangifer tarandus (reindeer), Rupicapra rupicapra (a small goat-antelope), and even Coelodonta antiquitatis (woolly rhinoceros) have been recovered from hyaena dens, proving they had a very varied diet. However, their diet was not restricted to herbivorous prey. The presence of chewed Ursus spelaeus bones and hyaena skeletal material in their caves indicates that Crocuta crocuta spelaea partook in both the scavenging of cave bear corpses and potential cannibalism.

One of the most unusual things about the cave hyaena is the evidence of changes in tooth shape. Dental specialisation of a meat-cutting tooth shape can be correlated to the onset of glacial periods, while during interglacials, teeth despecialised to the bone-crushing form. Meat can provide more calories and subsequently more energy to sustain the hyaena during colder periods. This need, in conjunction with competition with early hominids for the fewer prey animals available during the cold, may have led to this dental specialisation.

The ivory “Creeping Hyena” found in the La Madeleine rock shelter, Dordogne, France. Image by Klaus D. Peter.

The cave hyaena has also been an important part of human cultural development. It has featured in numerous cave paintings, such as the unmistakable examples seen at the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France. Then there are the less obvious illustrations of Le Portel Cave, Ariège, France, and Le Gabillou Cave, Dordogne, France, which may represent hyaena, but this is undetermined. There was even a small ivory sculpture of Crocuta crocuta spelaea recovered from France, which can be found in the National Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. The beauty of cave art is that it allows information rarely preserved in fossils to be accessible in the modern day, like the depictions of the spotted pattern of the hyaena or of how the animal stood. Cleary, this animal amazed our ancestors and captured their artistic intrigue, helping shape the very ways in which human expression has matured.

The megafauna extinction of the Late Pleistocene wiped out over one third of megafauna genera and is correlated to both the Last Glacial Maximum and the expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa. It is thought that climatic changes isolated two populations of hyaena, one in Europe and one in Africa. In Northern Europe, the climatic conditions became unfavourable for the species, and so they soon disappeared from this region, while in Southern Europe they could endure. The species was probably restricted to the south by around 40 thousand years ago, and a decrease in prey abundance due to a fall in vegetation productivity and greater competition with lions, bears, and humans must have played a part in the downfall of the European cave hyaena as a whole.

Image References
[1] Two Crocuta crocuta spelaea enjoying a meal, snarling at one another as they devour a carcass. Artwork by Lucas Lima.
[2] The ivory “Creeping Hyena” found in La Madeleine, France. Image by Klaus D. Peter.

Information References and Further Sources
[1] Baryshnikov, G. (1999). ‘Chronological and geographical variability of Crocuta spelaea (Carnivora, Hyaenidae) from the Pleistocene of Russia’, in, Haynes, G., Klimowicz, J., and Reumer, J. W. F. (eds.) Mammoths and the Mammoth Fauna: Studies of an Extinct Ecosystem. Deinsea, 6 (1), pp. 155-174.
[2] Buckland, W. (1822). ‘XVI. Account of an assemblage of fossil teeth and bones of elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, bear, tiger, and hyæna, and sixteen other animals; discovered in a cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, in the year 1821: with a comparative view of five similar caverns in various parts of England, and others on the continent’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 112, pp. 171-236. Accessed 13th January 2021. Click Here.
[3] Diedrich, C. G., and Žák, K. (2006). ‘Prey deposits and den sites of the Upper Pleistocene hyena Crocuta crocuta spelaea (Goldfuss, 1823) in horizontal and vertical caves of the Bohemian Karst (Czech Republic)’, Bulletin of Geosciences, 81 (4), pp. 237-276. Accessed 13th January 2021. Click Here.
[4] Meloro, C. (2007). Plio-Pleistocene large carnivores from the Italian peninsula: functional morphology and macroecology. PhD. University of Naples Frederico II. Accessed 13th January 2021. Click Here.
[5] Reynolds, S. H. (1902). ‘Part I. Hyaena crocuta’, in A Monograph of the British Pleistocene Mammalia Vol II. British Pleistocene Hyaenidae, Ursidae, Canidae, and Mustelidae. London: The Palaeontological Society. pp. 1-25. Accessed 13th January 2021. Click Here.
[6] Spassov, N., and Stoytchev, T. (2004). ‘The presence of cave hyaena (Crocuta crocuta spelaea) in the Upper Palaeolithic rock art of Europe’, Historia Naturalis Bulgarica, 16, pp. 159-166. Accessed 14th January 2021. Click Here.
[7] Stuart, A. J., and Lister, A. M. (2014). ‘New radiocarbon evidence on the extirpation of the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta (Erxl.) in northern Eurasia’, Quaternary Science Reviews, 96, pp. 108-116. Accessed 14th January 2021. Click Here.
[8] Van Jaarsveld, A. S., Skinner, J. D., and Lindeque, M. (1988). ‘Growth, development and parental investment in the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta’, Journal of Zoology, 216 (1), pp. 45-53. Accessed 13th January 2021. Click Here.
[9] Varela, S., Lobo, J. M., Rodríguez, J., and Batra, P. (2010). ‘Were the Late Pleistocene climatic changes responsible for the disappearance of the European spotted hyena populations? Hindcasting a species geographic distribution across time’, Quaternary Science Reviews, 29 (17-18), pp. 2027-2035. Accessed 14th January 2021. Click Here.