WHITEHORSE — Two teeth that were sitting in a Canadian museum for almost 50 years have become proof that ice-aged hyenas once roamed Yukon.
A study published in the journal Open Quaternary says researchers made the link by examining the fossilized teeth discovered in the 1970s near Old Crow, Yukon.
Study authors, including Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula and University of Buffalo hyena expert Jack Tseng, confined the teeth belong to an extinct species of hyena that lived between 800,000 and 1.4 million years ago.
Zazula believes the hyenas may have gone extinct in North America due to larger carnivores, but he says that theory needs further proof.
Until this discovery, the nearest fossilized remains of the same species had been located in Kansas, and Zazula says the finding provides a key research link.
He says there had been no way to prove the species reached North America from Asia over the Bering land bridge but the location of these teeth shows prehistoric hyenas travelled through Yukon.
“So these are the first physical evidence, that we know of, of ancient hyenas crossing the Bering Land Bridge and also the first physical evidence of hyenas living above the Arctic Circle,” Zazula says.
Although the teeth were discovered about 50 years ago, they were kept in the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, along with thousands of others collected in the same area.
It was almost luck that the teeth were located in the collection, Zazula says.
“These fossils sort of remained in obscurity from the 1970s and I think when the researchers found them from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa they had an idea that maybe these were hyenas, but it was a big question mark.” (CKRW)
Tim Kucharuk , The Canadian Press