A group of researchers have recognized the teeth, which were discovered in the Yukon in the 1970s, as belonging to hyenas one million years ago.
Their findings were announced on Tuesday in the scientific journal Open Quaternary.
The discovery sheds new light on the evolution of the ferocious scavengers.
The two teeth were found during a paleontological team in Yukon’s Old Crow Basin in 1973.
Indigenous researchers have been working with scientists to explore the treasures of the region for over a century, says Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon government. But out of more than 50,000 specimens collected, only two that could belong to a hyena have been found.
It took almost 50 years to find out what they were and who they belonged to. The teeth wound up on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, which is where Mr. Zazula first saw them.
Scientists had long hypothesized that they could belong to hyenas, but the theory had not been confirmed.
Mr. Zazula teamed up with Jack Tseng, an evolutionary biologist with a specialty in hyenas at the University of Buffalo and Lars Werdelin at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
“A meeting of minds came together,” Mr. Zazula told the BBC. “Because (Tseng) is so well-versed in hyena fossils he knew instantly right away what they were.”
More testing discovered the age of the fossils to be between 850,000 and 1.4 million years old.
Although modern-day hyenas mostly live in Africa, fossils belonging to ancient genus have been found as far north as Mongolia and as far west as Mexico.
That’s a 6,000-kilometre gap. These fossils help connect the dots, and confirm the hypothesis that they arrived in North America from Russia on the Bering Strait, Mr. Zazula stated.
They also suggest that ancient hyenas had a very different life than one’s today.
“We’re so used to thinking of Hyenas living in places like Africa, where they’re running around the savannah, he said. “But to think of them living in snow and 24-hour darkness in the winter is totally different.”