The Evolutionary Origins of Hyenas: Tracing Their Ancestral Lineages through Genetics

Uncategorized By May 18, 2023

Hyenas evolved and diversified over millions of years, adapting to a wide range of environments and developing various survival strategies. Genetic analysis has traced the lineage of hyenas back over 22 million years to small, cat-like carnivores that lived in Asia. Hyenas are closer relatives of cats than dogs because of their shared ancestry with primitive feliforms. As hyenas adapted, they developed traits and behaviors similar to cats and parallel paths of evolution with them. The emergence of true hyenas around 22 million years ago led to the appearance of prototypical hyenas, followed by the diversification of hyenas.

The Evolutionary Origins of Hyenas: Tracing Their Ancestral Lineages through Genetics

Hyenas are a fascinating species with a long and complex history. Known for their distinctive laugh and scavenging habits, hyenas have captured the imagination of people throughout history. But where did these unique animals come from, and how did they evolve into the creatures we see today?

Through genetics, researchers have been able to trace the ancestral lineages of hyenas and uncover important insights into their evolutionary history. In this article, we’ll explore the genetic origins of hyenas and what we’ve learned about their evolutionary journey.

The Genetic Origins of Hyenas

Hyenas belong to the family Hyaenidae, which includes four species: the spotted hyena, the brown hyena, the striped hyena, and the aardwolf. While these species share many physical and behavioral traits, they also have distinctive differences that reflect their genetic diversity.

Through genetic analyses, scientists have traced the lineage of hyenas back over 22 million years. The earliest hyena ancestors were small, cat-like carnivores that lived in Asia during the Eocene epoch. From there, hyenas evolved and diversified, spreading across the globe and adapting to a wide range of environments.

One of the most interesting aspects of hyenas’ genetic origins is their relationship with other carnivores. Hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs, despite their resemblance to canines. This is due to a shared ancestry with primitive feliforms (cat-like carnivores) that lived during the Oligocene epoch, which lasted from 33.9 to 23 million years ago.

Over time, hyenas and cats evolved along separate but parallel lines, developing similar traits and behaviors as they adapted to their respective environments. This convergence in evolution has resulted in some striking similarities between hyenas and cats, including their retractable claws, keen senses, and solitary hunting styles.

The Evolutionary Journey of Hyenas

As hyenas evolved and diversified over millions of years, they adapted to a wide range of environments and developed a variety of survival strategies. Here are a few key stages in their evolutionary journey:

– The rise of the bone-crushers: Around 10 million years ago, hyenas evolved powerful jaws and teeth that allowed them to crack open and consume bones from carcasses. This adaptation gave rise to the group of hyenas known as the hyaenodonts, which dominated the carnivorous niches in Africa, Europe, and North America for millions of years.

– The emergence of true hyenas: Around 22 million years ago, a new group of hyenas appeared that were more closely related to modern hyenas. These “prototypical hyenas” had features such as strong legs, powerful jaws, and the ability to run for extended periods of time, making them efficient hunters and scavengers.

– The diversification of hyenas: Over time, hyenas diversified into a variety of species that occupied different niches across the globe. The spotted hyena, for example, evolved in Africa and became a top predator, while the aardwolf adapted to a diet of termites.

– The role of humans: Humans have played a significant role in shaping the evolution of hyenas over the past few thousand years. Some cultures have revered hyenas, while others have hunted and persecuted them. This has led to differences in hyena behavior and morphology, such as the smaller body size of urban hyenas compared to their rural counterparts.


Q: Why are hyenas called “laughing” animals?

A: Hyenas make a range of vocalizations to communicate with each other, including a distinctive “laughing” sound that sounds like a hysterical giggle. This vocalization can be used to signal submission, aggression, or alarm.

Q: What do hyenas eat?

A: Hyenas are opportunistic carnivores that will eat almost anything, including carrion, small and large mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects.

Q: Are hyenas endangered?

A: While some hyena species are considered endangered, such as the brown hyena and striped hyena, others are classified as “least concern” due to their relatively stable populations. However, all hyena species face threats from habitat loss, hunting, and persecution from humans.

Q: Are hyenas related to dogs?

A: Despite their resemblance to dogs, hyenas are actually more closely related to cats. However, both hyenas and dogs belong to the order Carnivora, which includes all carnivorous mammals.