Eternal Enemies: Lions Vs Hyenas (Documentary)

The bad blood between lions and spotted hyenas runs deep, and is one of the most celebrated rivalries in nature. Their gory competition over carcasses on the African savanna has been memorialized in numerous wildlife documentaries like Beverly and Derek Joubert’s classic Eternal Enemies. “Eternal” is obviously a bit of an overstatement – the competition between the species has only existed as long as both have been around – but fossil evidence from prehistoric Europe at least partially documents how far back lions and hyenas have been snarling at each other.

Not so far into the past, during the days of the Late Pleistocene prior to 12,000 years ago, both lions and hyenas lived in Europe. Thanks to the fossil record, paleontologists have known this for the past two centuries. The British naturalist William Buckland made a name for himself in academic circles by teasing out the secrets of hyena-chewed bones found in Kirkdale Cave, and in 1810 the German paleontologist Georg August Goldfuss initially described what would come to be known as the “cave lion” – Panthera leo spelaea. (We now know that this name is a little misleading. The lion did sometimes occupy caves, but more often tread across the dry grasslands and through the boreal forests of Eurasia and has been recast as the “steppe lion.”) The confrontations which take place on the savanna of Botswana today used to be played out on the cool steppe of Germany, and a paper just published by paleontologist Cajus Diedrich lays out some of the evidence.

Between 1958 and 1976 a cache of about 4,000 Pleistocene mammal bones was excavated along a stretch of the Emscher River near Bottrop in west-central Germany. This collection of bones has served as window into the ecology of the area more than 37,000 years ago – bite marks and other damage to many of the bones has led Diedrich to the conclusion that the area was a place where hyenas violently dismantled the carcasses of their prey and raised their cubs. But lions were there, too.

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