MULTIPURPOSE HYAENID ELEGANCE: HYAENICTITHERIUM
As we have seen in previous posts, the Miocene was a time of gigantic hyenas and hyena-like predators. But more than that, it was a time of hyaenid diversity. So, members of the hyaenid family occupied different ecological niches, and we talk of the “civet-like”, “mongoose-like” and the ”dog-like” hyaenas, besides the more familiar “bone crackers”.
Giant bone-crackers like Pachycrocuta, for instance, were no doubt spectacular animals, but my personal favorite are the dog-like hyenas. Comparable in build and body mass to today’s coyotes and wolves, these species combined their elegant, gracile skeletons with a “multipurpose” dentition that allowed them to take a variety of middle sized prey which they would consume to the last bone, but they also could search far and wide for any carcass in the landscape, scavenging both in an opportunistic and in a more determined way.
Years ago, during my visit to Hezheng in China I was fortunate to study first-hand an amazing sample of Hyaenictitherium fossils, including many postcranial bones that gave me a much clearer idea than I had before of the body proportions of these animals.
Finally, here is the reconstructed life appearance of Hyaenictitherium, an animal that would have the approximate size of a modern coyote. The coat pattern is broadly based on that of modern hyaenids, especially that of the striped hyena and the aardwolf, but some reference to viverrids is also made
Hyaenictitherium wongii and similar species somehow filled in the Old World the niches that the true dogs were occupying in North America at about the same time. With time, some lineages of dog-like hyaenids evolved into the “hunting hyenas” of the Pliocene, apparently the only hyaenids that eventually made it to the New World… but that is a different story!