Wolves and Spotted Hyenas Competed for Prey on the British Isles during Interstadials

Today, timber wolves (Canis lupus) and spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) do not have overlapping ranges, but during the Pleistocene they co-existed throughout much of Eurasia. A recent study of bone chemistry from specimens of wolves and hyenas from 3 fossil sites located in southwestern England suggests they competed for the same prey items. Fossils from these 3 sites date to 3 different interglacial and interstadial climate phases. The oldest site yields fossils dating from between 220,000 years BP to 190,000 years BP. This was a warm interglacial, and grasslands were thought to be widespread here then. Fossil specimens from this site include elk, wild boar, mountain hare, lion, wolf, hyena, red fox, and cat. Wolves and hyenas primarily ate horse and hare during this time period. The 2nd oldest site yields fossils dating from 90,000 years BP to 80,000 years BP–an interstadial during the early Wisconsinian Ice Age when average temperatures temporarily reversed back to more temperate conditions. Fossils found at this site include bison, caribou, red fox, arctic fox, wolverine, brown bear, and wolf. Wolves primarily ate bison and caribou during this climate phase. The 3rd site yields fossils dating from 60,000 years BP to 25,000 years BP, a phase of rapidly fluctuating climates bouncing back and forth from cold stadial to warm interstadial. Fossils from this site include horse, wooly mammoth, wooly rhino, bison, caribou, hyena, wolf, hare, and elk. Wolves and hyenas primarily ate horse, rhino, and bison during this phase. Spotted hyenas disappeared from the British Isles during the Last Glacial Maximum when most of it was covered in glacial ice. Wolves persisted on the islands until man wiped them out during the 1700s.

Comparison between timber wolf and spotted hyena. Today, their ranges do not overlap, but they did occur together throughout Eurasia during the Pleistocene. They likely competed for the same prey items. Pleistocene hyenas outweighed wolves by about 50 pounds on average. I ripped this image off google images.
Map of fossil sites where wolf and hyena specimens used in the below referenced study were excavated. Image from the below referenced study.

Although I have no doubt wolves did compete with spotted hyenas during the Pleistocene, I am highly skeptical analysis of bone chemistry can accurately determine the former diets of these ancient animals. The limited sample size of fossil specimens may not reflect the diet of the entire population. Moreover, a study of moa coprolites from New Zealand determined the results of an isotope analysis did not match the contents of moa coprolites actually found. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/trust-the-coprolites-not-the-stable-isotope-analysis/ ) In my opinion this study debunks the results of all studies using stable isotope analysis to determine the diets of ancient animals. The only sure way of knowing what an animal ate is to analyze the contents of their fossilized feces. I consider the bone chemistry studies to be interesting speculation but little better than wild guessing.


Flower, L; D. Schreve and A. Lamb

“Nature of the Beast? Complex Drivers of Prey Choice, Competition, and Resilience in Pleistocene Wolves (Canis lupus 1754)

Quaternary Science Review 272 November 2021



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