PACHYCROCUTA: GIANT DESTROYER OF CARCASSES, AND MORE
Hyenas have long been the victims of human prejudice and superstition, from ancient tribal tales to “The Lion King”. That is a pity because it gets in the way of our perception of a group of amazing animals with incredible adaptations for their ecological niches.
Lions sometimes have a hard time defending their rightful kills against large hyena clans, but quite often it is the hyenas who lose their own prey to opportunistic lions. Such dynamics are not new, and there is every likelihood that the woodlands and prairies of the Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene witnessed comparable conflicts quite often.
In the Old World Plio-Pleistocene, it was the lion-sized sabertooths of the genus Homotherium who had to deal with the challenges of living next to a most impressive hyena: Pachycrocuta brevirrostris. This animal was considerably larger in its linear dimensions than the living spotted hyena, but it was also more robust, so its body mass would have been much larger.
P. breviorrostris shared all the adaptations of modern hyenas for cracking bones (massive, blunt premolar teeth, robust skull with a domed forehead) and for carrying large pieces of carcasses over long distances (long, well muscled neck, large scapula with a flat articulation for weight transmission, shortened back and hind limbs for stability). But its massive size took those adaptations to a different scale, and certainly it made the giant hyena a rival to reckon with for any competing predator.
This illustration shows Pachycrocuta cracking a large ungulate bone, and a schematic view of the anatomical features involved in this action. The massive muscles of mastication (temporalis and masseter) provided the huge force necessary to crack the bone with the premolar teeth, and the domed forehead helped to dissipate the stresses generated during the bite
But, was P. brevirrostris a scavenger and a kleptoparasite of predators such as the sabertooths, or did it kill much of its own prey? This is a good question and one to which we may never get a final answer. On one hand, its skull and dentition were adapted to process bone at a phenomenal scale, so it was clearly very well adapted to scavenging. In fact, the cutting blade of its carnassial teeth was slightly shorter than in the highly predaceous modern spotted hyena, leaving more room for the crushing section of the dentition, a detail that suggests a more scavenging lifestyle.
On the other hand, the huge body mass of P. brevirrostris made it less efficient for this animal to forage through the enormous distances required in order to come across such a dispersed resource as carrion is. More purely scavenging species, such as the modern brown and striped hyenas, are much lighter, and actually weight considerably less than the more predatory spotted hyena. And while a large body mass can be a problem for long-distance foraging, it can be an advantage for active hunting, since one or several heavy hyenas can be more effective at subduing and bringing down a large prey animal.
Whether it killed or scavenged most of its food, the fact is that Pachycrocuta had the habit of bringing lots of it back to its den sites, a habit which apparently explains the origin of several remarkable fossil sites. If nothing else, paleontologists need to be grateful to this gigantic bone cracker for its efforts to collect hundreds of bones and gather them in the places where they eventually became preserved as fossils.
A family group of P. brevirrostris gather at the den site, where the cubs play with some old bones. Such dens, when placed near seasonal lakes or waterholes, could be buried by mud during floods and the bones would be preserved as fossils