Ancient predators of the African savanna
Over the next 3 million years Africa’s fauna underwent a complete change. Forest-dependent species either died out or adapted to the more open landscape, while animals that evolved earlier in the Asian savanna made their appearance in Africa. This period is, of course, critical in the evolution of our own species.
The aridification of Africa and the change in food-gathering patterns got our primate ancestors walking on two legs. Africa entered a further drier cycle at the start of the Pliocene, 5 million years ago, and this resulted in further extinctions, and evolutionary adaptations. Had one been able to travel through Kruger 2 million years ago, these are some of the predators you might have encountered in a landscape that would have been much more tropical and heavily wooded than the Park is today.
Sabre-toothed cats (Homotherium crenatidens and Megantereon cultridens)
The sabre-toothed cats were distant cousins of the lion, which ultimately became the dominant species in this particular niche. They had large, specialised canines which were well adapted to killing, but bad for bone crunching. This may have led to their downfall as their large and elegant teeth were too delicate for a savanna lifestyle.
Homotherium, in the fossil record between 5 million and 1,5 million years, was slightly larger than a lion and probably operated in prides in more open woodland. Megantereon was slightly smaller – about the size of a lioness – and preferred denser bush. Megantereon disappears from the fossil record about 500 000 years ago.
False sabre-toothed cat (Dinofelis piveteaui)
Dinofelis was as big as a lioness and had less-pronounced canines than the sabre-toothed cats. It was probably quite leopard-like in its behaviour, leading a solitary existence and hunting by night. Dinofelis was probably squeezed into extinction by the smaller and more versatile leopard which occupied the same riverine bush habitat. Dinofelis exists in the fossil record between 5 million and 1,5 million years ago. Leopard fossils dating back 3 million years have been found in South Africa.
Giant hyaena (Pachycrocuta brevirostris)
The giant hyaena was about 25% larger than the spotted hyaena seen in Kruger today. It probably hunted and scavenged in packs, and was one of the most formidable carnivores on the African landscape. It had one fatal flaw. It appears to have had an over-reliance on the sabre-toothed cats. Scavenging their kills was a core part of its existence and when they drifted towards extinction 1,5 million years ago, the giant hyaena followed suit.
Hunting hyaena (Chasmaporthetes nitidula)
Often referred to as the long-legged hyaena, Chasmaporthetes was similar in size to the brown hyaena (40kg). Scientists believe that its long legs and its dental structure made it more of a hunter than a scavenger. Its teeth were not adapted to crushing bone, which ultimately proved to be an evolutionary dead-end for the hunting hyaena that has been recorded in southern Africa from 3 million years to just over 1 million years ago.
Wolf-like dog (Canis sekowii)
This species appears to be an ancestral form of the wild dog. Not much is known about it as it was only discovered in the late 1990s at Gladysvale in the Cradle of Humankind. It was the size of a wolf but had a broader diet than just meat.
The Gladysvale fossil, which dates back a million years, was found to have a wild date palm seed in its stomach cavity. The oldest fossils of the modern African wild dog in southern Africa are 500?000 years old from a site near Langebaan on the Cape west coast.