Ancient mitochondrial genomes from Chinese cave hyenas provide insights into the evolutionary history of the genus Crocuta

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  • Jiaming Hu
  • Westbury, Michael Vincent
  • Junxia Yuan
  • Zhen Zhang
  • Shungang Chen
  • Bo Xiao
  • Xindong Hou
  • Hailong Ji
  • Xulong Lai
  • Michael Hofreiter
  • Guilian Sheng

Cave hyenas (genus Crocuta) are extinct bone-cracking carnivores from the family Hyaenidae and are generally split into two taxa that correspond to a European/Eurasian and an (East) Asian lineage. They are close relatives of the extant African spotted hyenas, the only extant member of the genus Crocuta. Cave hyenas inhabited a wide range across Eurasia during the Pleistocene, but became extinct at the end of the Late Pleistocene. Using genetic and genomic datasets, previous studies have proposed different scenarios about the evolutionary history of Crocuta. However, causes of the extinction of cave hyenas are widely speculative and samples from China are severely understudied. In this study, we assembled near-complete mitochondrial genomes from two cave hyenas from northeastern China dating to 20 240 and 20 253 calBP, representing the youngest directly dated fossils of Crocuta in Asia. Phylogenetic analyses suggest a monophyletic clade of these two samples within a deeply diverging mitochondrial haplogroup of Crocuta. Bayesian analyses suggest that the split of this Asian cave hyena mitochondrial lineage from their European and African relatives occurred approximately 1.85 Ma (95% CI 1.62-2.09 Ma), which is broadly concordant with the earliest Eurasian Crocuta fossil dating to approximately 2 Ma. Comparisons of mean genetic distance indicate that cave hyenas harboured higher genetic diversity than extant spotted hyenas, brown hyenas and aardwolves, but this is probably at least partially due to the fact that their mitochondrial lineages do not represent a monophyletic group, although this is also true for extant spotted hyenas. Moreover, the joint female effective population size of Crocuta (both cave hyenas and extant spotted hyenas) has sustained two declines during the Late Pleistocene. Combining this mitochondrial phylogeny, previous nuclear findings and fossil records, we discuss the possible relationship of fossil Crocuta in China and the extinction of cave hyenas.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20202934
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1943
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 2021

    Research areas

  • ancient DNA, cave hyena, evolutionary history, mitochondrial genome, Pleistocene

ID: 259626343