Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Diet Of Ancient Hyaenas

Hyaena coprolites
Mary Anning is one of the most most renowned palaeontologists for her discoveries in the 200 million year old cliffs at Lyme Regis. They include giant marine reptiles and the first pterosaur discovered outside of Germany. Anning noticed, in some ichthyosaur specimens, the presence of small stones in the stomach cavity. She named them bezoar stones, but their true nature was not revealed until a few years later.

Her friend and member of the Royal Society, Dr William Buckland, examined the stones closely. He noticed the presence of tiny fish bones and scales, and concluded that they were in fact fossilised faeces which he named coprolite. Since their discovery, these trace fossils have become invaluable in reconstructing the lives of ancient organisms and the ecosystems which they inhabited. We can now say that Anomalocaris canadensis, the first super predator on Earth, fed on trilobites.

Palaeontologists, led by Jean Marc Elalouf from the Institute of Biology and Technology, Saclay, France, have begun to reconstruct the diets of ancient cave hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta spelaea). These creatures lived from 1 million to 10,000 years ago, were 25% larger than their African cousins and had a powerful bite. The only reason they went extinct was due to climate change and over-hunting from humans. Yet their relative, recent extinction meant the researchers were able to use genetic rather than fossil evidence to discover the identity of the hyaena's prey.

Out of the nine specimens of fossil dung, only two yielded good sections of DNA. They found that the primary food source were red deer, which were common in Ice Age Europe. This is backed up by bones which display bite marks from hyaenas. In addition to reconstructing the diet, the researchers also analysed the mitochondrial DNA from the hyaena cells present in the dung and compared it with that from living species.

'The results support previous studies that have indicated the cave hyena was an ancient subspecies of the modern spotted hyena and should therefore be called the Ice Age spotted hyena,' said Cajus Diedrich, a researcher from the Paleo-Logic Research Institute in Germany. Additional DNA information will yield evidence as to their population and social structure, leading up to extinction.