Meet the Giant Short-Faced Hyena That Was as Large as Today’s Lions

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Published: December 28, 2022
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Unknown to many people, hyenas are some of the smartest and most sociable animals to exist in the wild. Because of the bias humans have against these creatures, many people are not able to spend time around them and actually get to know them. Apart from being really intelligent, hyenas are also very old. The history and evolution of these animals can be traced as far back as millions of years ago, although many of the present-day hyenas do not bear much resemblance with these extinct ones. Ancient hyenas were larger, and some were even thought to be more vicious. These prehistoric hyenas were virtually completely fearless and even hunted prey that was at least twice as large as themselves.

Even modern-day hyenas are stronger than most think, with these animals being as strong as lions, especially when hunting prey. Occasionally, a fight would break out between both animal groups. One of the few recorded fights between these animals happened in Ethiopia, in 1999, with the lions killing over 30 hyenas and the hyenas killing over six lions before the military intervened. According to experts, a species of hyenas, which was actually as large as lions today, existed millions of years ago. This article will examine random facts about this species of hyena and things that make it different from modern hyenas.

Meet the Pachycrocuta

Pachycrocuta NT

The Pachycrocuta was a giant short-faced hyena that is estimated to have averaged 240 pounds in weight.

©Nobu Tamura / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

In comparison to humans who only evolved around six million years ago, the earliest species of hyenas date as far back as 15 million years. One of these ancient species is the Pachycrocuta; an ancient species of hyenas that was as large as lions. The Pachycrocuta was a giant short-faced hyena that stood about 35 to 39 inches at the shoulder and is estimated to have averaged 240 pounds in weight. Some of these hyenas grew larger and reached up to 330 pounds, which is the size of a lioness.

Because of the size of these hyenas, experts believe that they were not the type to chase their prey. These hyenas were top predators, but like the modern striped hyena, they were probably mostly kleptoparasitic scavengers of the carcasses of other carnivores, including saber-toothed cats. The Pachycrocuta possessed large, robustly formed limbs with shortened distal bones, as well as a jaw with strong, fully developed teeth, particularly premolars. All of these characteristics show how it was designed to dissect corpses, move bulky portions, and break bones.

Pachycrocuta Distribution and Habitat

Musee Crozatier Pachycrocuta

Pachycrocuta were rampant in Eurasia and parts of Africa.

©Musée Crozatier / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

According to experts, these hyenas were more rampant in Eurasia and parts of Africa. The exact time frame that these hyenas existed is not known. However, the earliest members of this species emerged at some point in the Late Miocene period, around 4.5 million years ago. More recent species are believed to have emerged in the Late Pliocene to the Pleistocene Epoch, which is around three million to 500,000 years ago. At this point, it is believed that these animals shifted their habitat from East Africa to other southern parts of the continent.

These hyenas were also present in parts of Europe and Asia. They are thought to have first appeared in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene and lived in Asia between the end of the Pliocene and the Middle Pleistocene. Some of the fossils of these hyenas were found in caves in China at the same time fossils of early humans were found. However, it is unknown whether these early humans hunted the hyenas, if the hyenas hunted the humans, or if both species just inhabited the caves at different times.

The Pachycrocuta is believed to have gone extinct in East Africa in the Late Pliocene era and its disappearance from Europe is also attributed to the extinction of saber-toothed tigers. The reason for this conclusion is that the Pachycrocuta preferred to steal carcasses from these tigers and their extinction meant a drop in the supply of food for these hyenas. Their extinction is also linked to the evolution of smaller spotted hyenas which would have an easier time chasing and catching prey because they were not as big. In addition, the spotted hyena was better suited to the environmental circumstances that existed during the end of the Pleistocene epoch, just after the last Ice Age, when the majority of the world’s large mammals perished due to a shortage of food.

Diet: What Did the Pachycrocuta Eat?

Like present-day hyenas, the Pachycrocuta was a carnivorous predator. However, unlike present-day striped hyenas, the Pachycrocuta did not hunt their own food unless it was very necessary. These ancient hyenas preferred to steal carcasses from other predators, particularly saber-toothed tigers, and then drag the carcass all the way to their dens to eat. They are carnivores and eat primarily meat. However, it is not known whether, like most present-day hyenas, they liked to add fruit to their diets occasionally. 

These hyenas were also known to eat all of their prey, including bones because of how strong their teeth were. Additionally, these animals did not have a preference for the kind of prey they feasted on, considering that they ate mostly carcasses stolen from other predators. Ideally, these ancient hyenas were not supposed to have any predators because of their size. However, experts believe that they could have easily been prey to much larger predators, as they were not as active.

Pachycrocuta vs. Modern Hyenas

Hyena in woodland

Ancient hyenas, like the Pachycrocuta, were larger than modern-day hyenas.

©Ondrej Prosicky/

The primary difference between both hyena species is that the ancient hyenas were much larger than modern ones. Nevertheless, the size of modern-day hyenas varies by species, with the largest of them growing to over 150 pounds. Both species still share some similar features, the only difference being the size and in cases such as dentition, the placement of their teeth. Despite the size and placement of their teeth being different, both hyena species could easily crush the bones of their prey. Both species are also more scavengers than hunters, although modern hyenas hunt for their food more than the Pachycrocuta and are even more sociable.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Musée Crozatier / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License / Original

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