Eye of the beholder

By looks alone there are many animals that do not win our hearts. People don’t coo over wasps; vultures are grotesque; don’t get me started on elephant seals. Sadly this is due to what we see as beautiful. David Hume, the 18th Century Scottish philosopher, got it spot on, when he wrote “beauty in things exist merely in the mind which contemplates them.”

Baby cheetahs look adorable because of those gorgeous little fluffy faces and big eyes. Baby seals have those lovely big, round eyes that seem to say ‘give me a cuddle’. Penguins waddle in an adorable, slightly human way. We like to see ourselves in animals (like the big eyes) giving them a high ‘squee’ factor. Anthropomorphising animals (and even rocks, or tree trunks) is something humans do unconsciously all the time. Sadly, if an animal doesnt fit our view of what we see as ‘cute’ this can have a hugely negative bias how we view some creatures.

There is one group of animals that we have given a pretty tough time: hyenas. They don’t have those big baby eyes, or ‘cute’ faces, and are (wrongly) conveyed as savage beasts, scavanging anything they can.

A spotted hyena

A spotted hyena (Crocuta croctua) on the Serengeti, with a zebra leg. (Image used with kind permision by Anne Hilborn)

My favourite, the spotted hyena, regularly features in the public eye. Not in a good way, though. Disney’s classic The Lion King featured three hyenas (Shenzi, Banzai and Ed) who were particularly nasty (and a little dumb). Spotted hyenas even make a little appearance in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear the spotted hyena has a very bad run. The book’s heroine, the resourceful and intelligent Ayla, despises them. Set around 40,000 years ago in Europe, Ayla was adopted by a group of Neanderthals (the ‘Clan’) and, as one would imagine, she struggles to fit in. Her hatred of hyenas manifested when one tried to drag her Clan sisters baby off, resulting in Ayla killing it with her sling. If the clan didn’t forbid women to use weapons, then Ayla would be a hero. But the hyenas exposed her secret, and in each of the 6 books of this series, they are portrayed as vile creatures.

It appears that some animals are doomed to be labelled in human eyes.

Even though, really, hyenas are super cute. Just look at these…

A gorgeous spotted hyena just lying lazily in the sun.

A gorgeous spotted hyena just lying lazily in the sun. Just look at those sleepy eyes! (Image used with kind permission by Anne Hilborn)

A young spotted hyena.

A young spotted hyena. So fluffy. That is all. (Image used with kind permission by Anne Hilborn)

With four extant species (the spotted hyena, the striped hyena, the brown hyena and the aardwolf), this is a pretty diverse group of large carnivores in a relatively small range (their current geographical range is Africa and the Middle East). They have been an incredible group, around for over 20 million years, with one species even making its way over to America.

There was one ancient relative, which may not have been the prettiest, but it was the biggest of all the hyenas: the Giant Short Faced Hyena (Pachycrocuta brevirostris). Evolving in Africa around 3 million years ago, this species was on the planet for over two and a half million years. It was a successful carnivore throughout Africa, Europe, and as far East as China. And it was the largest of the hyena family. The spotted hyena measures around 80cm at the shoulder (close to my hips). The Giant Short Faced Hyena, stood taller, at around 100cm at the shoulder (reaching my stomach).

The enormous Giant Short Faced Hyena (in green)

The enormous Giant Short Faced Hyena (in green) in comparison to the spotted hyena (in black). Image by Jan Freedman.

This giant’s anatomy was a little different from the spotted hyena we are more familiar with. It had shorter, more muscular legs. As its name suggests, it had a short snout too. (The ‘Giant Short Faced’ title is a common theme for Pleistocene beasts. We have come across a couple before: the Giant Short Faced Bear, and the Giant Short Faced Kangaroo). This was undoubtedly an impressive creature. But what do we know about its hunting habits? Well, we may just have a few clues.

Zhoukoudian Cave in China reveals a rather morbid history. The cave was a hyena den, where these giants lived, and it would appear, where they also preyed on helpless animals that fell into the cave – including Homo erectus. Many of the fossils of the human species have teeth marks on them which fit the dental structure of the giant hyenas. What’s more, the skulls of the roughly 40 human individuals are all cracked and broken up. Broken for one purpose: to remove the brain. The most juiciest, nutritious meat from a human head is the brain (after the tongue, and cheek muscles), and Pachycrocuta knew this. The skulls have been shattered and crushed so the brain could be eaten.

Pachycrocuta, as you now know, was much more stocky and muscular than the spotted hyena, with a similar to the build of the American sabretooth, Smilodon. And this hints at a certain lifestyle. With short, stocky build it wouldn’t have been able to chase prey over long distances, unlike the more agile spotted hyena. Huge teeth indicate that it was a bone cruncher just likes its relative. A closer look at the short muzzle show that their back teeth had a massive bone crushing bite. The front of the jaw, however, had a bite with much less force. Some researchers suggest that this shows the Giant Short Faced Hyena was a scavenger, and it was unlikely that a bite would be able to bring down prey.

A site in Southwest Spain tells a similar story. The majority of the bones excavated from a den of Pachycrocuta were horse, bison and deer. What’s more the large leg bones of these animals were cracked open to get the juicy bone marrow out (other bones, like ribs or feet bones, of the horses, bison and deer, were not cracked open). From this, researchers suggest that they scavenged animals, dragged them back to their cave and chomped on the big bones for their meals.

The thick skull, and short snout of (Image by Wiki member By Ghedoghedo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20542629

The thick skull, and short snout of Pachycrocuta brevirostris. (Image by Wiki member Ghedoghedo, Public Domain)

I think it is highly unlikely that this, the largest of all hyenas, was solely a scavenger. Wolves don’t have particularly strong bite forces (around 400 pounds, less than half that of a tiger). Wolves, however, are long distance runners, and can play the long chase: the Giant Short Faced Hyena was no marathon runner. It may have ambushed prey and, working in a pack, overpowered larger animals with their large size and strength. More research on the postcranial skeleton will shed some light. Like the spotted hyena, this giant could crunch bones with ease, but that alone doesnt indicate it was just a scavenger.

The disappearance of this giant, around half a million years ago remains a mystery. It may be that small, faster carnivores out-competed them. Or that the world was changing, and they couldn’t keep up. Of course, as with many of our Twilight Beasts, there are tales of survivors.  A huge, muscular carnivore is said to viscously attack humans. East Africans legends describe this beast as standing around four feet tall, with a long sloping back. The Nandi Bear has a particular liking for brains.

A sketch of the Nandi Bear (not from life). (Image from

A sketch of the Nandi Bear (not from life). (Image from cyrptid.ru Public Domain)

Look past the face of an animal and every single species is the end result of millions of years of evolution: animals that are magnificent because they are here. Some of us may not see some animals as cute, or pretty, but nature doesn’t care, and nor should it. Every species that has ever existed has lived because it was perfectly adapted for that environment. And each species around today is a unique survivor. Each individual species is just one piece in the 10 million (or so) piece jigsaw puzzle that makes up the history of life on Earth.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

A note of thanks to the wonderful zoologist Anne Hilborn for allowing us to use the beautiful photographs she took of the spotted hyenas in this post. If you are on Twitter, do follow Anne – she is currently researching cheetahs (as well as being an amazing science communicator). Your timelines will be filled with the most wonderful photos of gorgeous wildlife on the serengeti!

Further Reading:

Boaz, N. T. et al. (2001). ‘The Scavenging of ‘Peking Man’,’ Natural History. 110. pp.46-52. [Abstract only]

Boaz, N. T., Ciochon, R. L., Xu, Q, & Lui, J. (2004). ‘Mapping and taphonomic analysis of teh Homo erectus loci at Locality 1 Zhoukoudian, China’. Journal of Human Evolution. 46 (5). pp.519-549. [Abstract only]

Goswami, A., Milne, N., & Wroe, S. (2011). ‘Biting through constraints: cranial morphology, disparity and convergence across living and fossil carnivorous mammals.’ Proceedings: Biological Sciences. 278 (1713). pp. 1831-1839. [Full article]

Hume, D. (1742). Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Insianapolis. [Full book]

Palmgvist, P., & Arribas, A. (2001). ‘Taphonomic decoding of teh paleobiological information locked in a Lower Pleistocene assemblage of large mammals.’ Paleobiology. 27 (3). pp.512-530. [Abstract only]

Palmqvist, P., et al. (2008). ‘Biogeochemical and Ecomorphological inferences on prey selection and resource partitioning among mammalian carnivores in an Early Pleistocene community.’ PALAIOS. 23 (11/12). pp. 724-737. [Abstract only]

Palmgvist, P., et al. (2011). ‘The giant hyena Pachycrocuta brevirostris: Modelling the bone cracking behavious of an extinct carnivore’, Quaternary International. 243 (1). pp.61-79. [Abstract only]

Turner, A & Mauricio, A. (1996). ‘The giant hyena, Pachycrocuta brevirostris (Mammalia, Carnivora, Hyaenidae).’ Geobios. 29 (4). pp.455-468. [Full article]

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3 Responses to Eye of the beholder

  1. Fran says:

    Just a small thing – IT’S means IT IS. The word for BELONGING TO IT is ITS.

  2. I’m glad I clicked on your site. What an interesting read, thank you. I loved the Earth’s Children series and agree with you on the negativity of Hyenas. The photos you’ve included, especially that of the baby Hyena, are intriguing.

  3. Pingback: Eye of the beholder – clearancerose

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