Oxyaena – Extinct Forest Animal

Oxyaena lived from about 60 million years ago to 50 million years ago in what is now Asia, Europe, and North America. While appearing similar to cats or dogs, and with a name meaning “sharp hyena”, it is easy to believe that Oxyaena were close relatives to canids or felids. However, they diverged from carnivores like big cats and wolves, and from hyenas, well before hyenas split off from the rest of the carnivores.

Oxyaena SkeletonAnatomically, Oxyaena are actually most similar to mustelids (weasels, otters, raccoons). They had long, narrow bodies and weren’t adapted to running. They walked and ran on the soles of their feet rather than on their toes. Animals adapted to walk on their toes (like horses or cats) are faster runners. They wouldn’t have been able to chase down prey such as deer or horses. They were probably omnivores like modern-day mustelids. They would have preferred meat but also ate fruit from time to time, as well as consuming insects, eggs, and shellfish. Like raccoons, it is likely that they would have been able to climb trees with ease and could have navigated just as well among the branches as they did on the ground.

Oxyaena is classified as a eutherian. This is a group of mammals that are closer to placental mammals than marsupials, yet still are neither.



Sketch of Oxyaena

Oxyaena lived in forest environments near water. In the Early Eocene (when Oxyaena lived), temperatures were generally warmer than they are today. The beginning of the Eocene is marked by the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. This means that the planet was as warm (and the glacial poles as ice-free) as they can get. North America, Europe, and Asia were still connected when Oxyaena appeared, but were drifting apart and nearly separate when they went extinct.



When temperatures are hot, smaller animals survive best. Oxyaena was a mid-sized animal, about a yard long and weighing 40 pounds. They lived side-by-side with some of the first rodents, as well as early horses, lemurs, and a now-extinct group of animals called pantodonts. The animals emerging during this period were beginning to closely resemble those which exist today, yet were all much smaller.


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