The Cave hyena, also known as the Ice Age spotted hyena or Crocuta crocuta spelaea, was a paleosubspecies of spotted hyena that spanned from the Iberian Peninsula to eastern Siberia. It is one of the most well-known Ice Age mammals, and it can be found in several European bone caves. It was a highly specialized species, having more developed progressive and regressive traits than its current African relative. It preyed on huge animals such as wild horses, steppe bison, and woolly rhinoceros and was accountable for the buildup of hundreds of enormous Pleistocene mammal bones in places like horizontal caves, sinkholes, mud pits, and muddy riverbanks.

The reason behind the cave hyena’ extinction isn’t completely understood, it could have been caused by a mix of events, such as temperature change and competition with alternative predators.

The European cave hyena was substantially larger than its contemporary African counterpart, weighing up to 102 kg (225 lb). The cave hyena’s metacarpals and metatarsals are shorter and thicker in Late Pleistocene European specimens, but the humerus and femur are longer, indicating adaptations to a differing habitat than the existing spotted hyena.  Female cave hyenas were larger than their men equivalents, just like the African subspecies. The cave hyena has the spotted pelt of its African relative, according to Paleolithic rock art. Several cave hyena den locations in Europe show that the cave hyena preferred large prey, with wild horses being the most common, preceded by steppe bison and woolly rhinoceros. The cave hyena’s preference for horses matches that of the current African spotted hyena, which primarily hunts zebras. Reindeer, red deer, giant deer, European ass, and chamois were among the secondary prey species. In hyena den sites, a small quantity of wolf remains have also been identified. Although their existence in the cave site shows that they were also eaten upon, which is uncommon amongst carnivores, the cave hyena most likely killed wolves because of intraguild conflict. Likewise, cave lion and bear remnants have been found at hyena den sites, implying that the hyenas ate or killed them.

Despite the fact that Georges Cuvier published the first detailed account of the cave hyena in 1812, skeleton remnants of the cave hyena have been documented in scientific literature since the 18th century, albeit they have repeatedly been misdiagnosed. The cave hyena was first initially mentioned in writing in Kundmann’s 1737 tome Rariora Naturætur et Artis, where the writer mistook a hyena’s mandibular ramus for that of a calf. In 1774, Esper mistook hyena teeth found in Gailenreuth for lion teeth, while in 1784, Collini mistook a cave hyena skull for a seal skull. 

Cuvier noted a number of European locations where cave hyena remnants had been discovered in his own 1812 account and regarded it a distinct species from the spotted hyena due to its larger size. In his Ossemens Fossiles in 1823, he extended on his theory, pointing out that the cave hyena’s digital extremities were shorter and thicker than the spotted hyena.

The exact reason for the cave hyena’s extinction is still unknown. Although climate change is considered a possible cause, it is not enough to explain the complete extinction of animals; although extreme cold conditions after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) reduced favorable habitat for hyenas in northern Europe and separated the hyena population from the caves. However, southern and central Europe were still habitable at the time, and this mammal survived several colder periods through the Pleistocene.


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