Why are there no hyenas in Europe?

September 23, 2010
This is a hyena. Credit: SINC.

A team from the National Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC) has analysed the impact of climate change on spotted hyena survival in Europe over 10,000 years ago. These changes played an important role, but the scientists say studies are still needed to look at the influence of human expansion and changes in herbivorous fauna on the definitive extinction of this species across the continent.

"Climate change in the past was not directly responsible for the of the spotted in southern Europe, but it was a factor in its disappearance", Sara Varela, lead author of the study and a researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC), tells SINC.

According to the study, which has been published in the Journal Quaternary Science Reviews, the hyena populations of Africa and Eurasia became separated during the glacial maximum. And "the climatic conditions in southern Europe 21,000 years ago were extreme for this species", says Varela.

At that time, the European climate was undergoing "drastic" changes, as were herbivorous fauna populations and human expansion. According to the expert, "the survival of the hyenas could have been affected by the combination of these three factors acting in synergy, but not by the action of the climate alone".

Her team studied in the past and identified the most favourable areas for the hyena in Europe, using modelling to look at the various climate scenarios of the Pleistocene. A second model estimated the severity of for the survival of these animals. "The climatic conditions in the south of Europe were at all times within the tolerance range of this species", Varela points out.

Everything happened in the late Pleistocene

The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) became extinct at the end of the late Pleistocene (around 10,000 years ago), coinciding with the last glacial maximum and the expansion of Homo sapiens. Large species disappeared forever, but the spotted hyena held out for a while and modified its geographical range in order to survive.

The distribution of the spotted hyena, a carnivore that is common in sub-Saharan Africa, has changed "substantially" from the Pleistocene until the present. Today it is only found in Africa, but during the Pleistocene (almost one million years ago), the spotted hyena also inhabited Eurasia.

Explore further: Climate change may threaten species of amphibians and reptiles in southwestern Europe

More information: Varela, Sara; Lobo, Jorge M.; Rodríguez, Jesús; Batra, Persaram. "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): 2027-2035, Aug 2010. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.04.017

Related Stories

True causes for extinction of cave bear revealed

August 24, 2010

The cave bear started to become extinct in Europe 24,000 years ago, but until now the cause was unknown. An international team of scientists has analysed mitochondrial DNA sequences from 17 new fossil samples, and compared ...

Recommended for you

Genomes uncover life's early history

August 24, 2015

A University of Manchester scientist is part of a team which has carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms.

Rare nautilus sighted for the first time in three decades

August 25, 2015

In early August, biologist Peter Ward returned from the South Pacific with news that he encountered an old friend, one he hadn't seen in over three decades. The University of Washington professor had seen what he considers ...

Why a mutant rice called Big Grain1 yields such big grains

August 24, 2015

(Phys.org)—Rice is one of the most important staple crops grown by humans—very possibly the most important in history. With 4.3 billion inhabitants, Asia is home to 60 percent of the world's population, so it's unsurprising ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.