Giant Hyena (Pachycrocuta)

giant hyena pachycrocuta
The Giant Hyena, Pachycrocuta (Wikimedia Commons).

Name:

Giant Hyena; also known as Pachycrocuta

Habitat:

Plains of Africa and Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Late Pliocene-Pleistocene (3 million-500,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

Up to three feet high at the shoulder and 400 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; short legs; powerful head and jaws

 

About the Giant Hyena (Pachycrocuta)

It seems that every animal on earth came in larger packages during the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, and the Giant Hyena (genus name Pachycrocuta) was no exception.

This megafauna mammal was very similar to the modern spotted hyena, except that it was about three times the size (some individuals may have weighed as much as 400 pounds) and more stockily built, with comparatively shorter legs. (In this respect, the Giant Hyena was similar in build to its close contemporary Smilodon, aka the Saber-Tooth Tiger, which was also much more heavily muscled and considerably slower than modern big cats.)

Save for these crucial differences, however, the Giant Hyena pursued a recognizably hyena-like lifestyle, stealing freshly killed prey from other, presumably smaller, predators and only occasionally hunting for its food, when circumstances demanded. Tantalizingly, the fossils of some Pachycrocuta individuals have been discovered in the same Chinese caves as the modern human ancestor Homo erectus; however, it's unknown if Homo erectus hunted the Giant Hyena, if the Giant Hyena hunted Homo erectus, or if these two populations merely occupied the same caves at different times!

(A similar situation holds for the Giant Hyena's descendant, the Cave Hyena, which coexisted with Homo sapiens in late Pleistocene Eurasia.)

​Ironically, given its massive size compared to its modern descendant, the Giant Hyena may well have been driven to extinction by the much smaller spotted hyena--which would have been ranged much more nimbly over the grasslands of Africa and Eurasia and been able to chase prey over longer distances (during times when freshly killed carcasses were thin on the ground).

The spotted hyena was also better adapted for the conditions that prevailed at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, shortly after the last Ice Age, when most of the world's giant mammals went extinct for lack of available food. (However, the Giant Hyena disappeared long before this, its fossil record coming to an abrupt halt about 400,000 years ago.)