Field of Science

Predators of the European Eocene

Among mammals in today's modern fauna, the role of terrestrial carnivore is dominated by members of one particular lineage, known (appropriately enough) as the Carnivora. But travel back in time to the Eocene period, roughly 56 to 34 million years ago, and you'll find a range of now extinct groups sharing that role. This post is looking at one of those groups, the proviverrines.

The Proviverrinae are a subgroup of the Hyaenodontidae, one of the two families of carnivores commonly associated as the creodonts. I've discussed creodonts before, and the overhanging question of whether they form a coherent evolutionary group. Currently, my impression is that most mammal palaeontologists seem inclined to think that hyaenodontids and oxyaenids probably do not share an immediate common ancestry. However, nor is there any clear idea of what else either group may relate to.

Skull of Cynohyaenodon cayluxi, photographed by Ghedoghedo.

Historically, proviverrines have been treated as the basal grade from which other groups of hyaenodontids were derived with representatives known from Europe and North America. However, a phylogenetic analysis of early hyaenodontids by Solé (2013) lead to a division of the 'proviverrines' between three monophyletic subfamilies: the Proviverrinae proper, the Sinopinae and the Arfiinae. Under this system, the Proviverrinae are a uniquely European group. As is standard in mammalian palaeontology, proviverrines (in the strict sense) are distinguished from other hyaenodontids by features of the teeth. Notable among these is the presence of a double root on the first lower premolar of most proviverrines; other hyaenodontids have a single root on this tooth.

The earliest proviverrines are known from the very beginning of the Eocene (Solé et al. 2014). Current thinking is that their ancestors probably immigrated into Europe around this time from Africa. The Late Paleocene Tinerhodon disputatum from northern Africa resembles a proviverrine in overall appearance but was probably more basally placed in respect to hyaenodontids as a whole. The name 'Proviverra' can be read as 'early civet' and while proviverrines were not related to modern civets (which are, of course, true carnivorans) this is probably not a bad indication of the overall appearance of their original appearance. These were very small animals, probably less than 100 g in body weight, and probably had a fairly generalised diet of small vertebrates and invertebrates. At first, proviverrines seem to have been restricted to southern Europe, what is now Spain and the very southernmost part of France. Northern Europe was inhabited by the Arfiinae and Sinopinae, as well as species of Oxyaenidae (the other 'creodont' family). Sinopinae were also found in southern Europe and may have excluded the proviverrines from evolving larger size. However, the other hyaenodontids and oxyaenids went extinct in Europe not to long after the beginning of the Eocene. A turnover in the mammalian fauna of North America around this time appears to be due to a cooling of the climate; though the evidence for climate cooling is less clear in Europe, it seems reasonable that it was going through similar changes. With their competitors out of the picture, the proviverrines rapidly diversified into the regions and niches that had been left unoccupied.

Lesmesodon edingeri, photographed by Ghedoghedo.

The largest proviverrines, members of the genera Prodissopsalis, Paenoxyaenoides and Matthodon, would eventually reach weights of close to twenty kilograms, about as large as a medium-sized dog. They would also diversify in their habits. Members of the genera Oxyaenoides and Paenoxyaenoides were cursorial hypercarnivores, their dentition specialised for a diet almost exclusively of meat*, like that of a modern cat. Matthodon and Quercytherium, in contrast, were genera whose dentition showed more adaptations for cracking hard materials such as bone. They may have had lifestyles more like those of hyaenas, with Matthodon (which combined adaptations for hypercarnivory and bone-cracking) perhaps being more of an active hunter than Quercytherium.

*These two genera also provide an excellent example of the role of convergent evolution in the evolution of mammalian carnivores. Their appearance to other hypercarnivorous hyaenodontids was such that it was only recently that they were recognised as proviverrines rather than members of other subfamilies no longer thought to have been found in Europe. And not only are they remarkably convergent on other subfamilies, the phylogenetic analysis of proviverrines by Solé et al. (2014) suggests that they're not even directly related to each other within that clade.

Proviverrines remained the dominant mammalian carnivores in Europe for about the next twenty million years but then went into a sharp decline. This reversal of fortunes may have been due to the increasingly cool, dry conditions developing at this time, and/or it may have been related to competition from the first true carnivorans arriving in Europe. The larger, more specialised proviverrines disappeared rapidly when their time came. The last surviving genus, Allopterodon, was a small form, little more than one kilogram in weight, and had a generalised dentition indicating a relatively unspecialised diet. This may have been a return to something like the lineage's original form but it would not save it: by the end of the Eocene, the proviverrines would be completely extinct.


Solé, F. 2013. New proviverrine genus from the Early Eocene of Europe and the first phylogeny of Late Palaeocene–Middle Eocene hyaenodontidans (Mammalia). Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 11 (4): 375–398.

Solé, F., J. Falconnet & L. Yves. 2014. New proviverrines (Hyaenodontida) from the early Eocene of Europe; phylogeny and ecological evolution of the Proviverrinae. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 171: 878–917.


  1. The names Oxyaenoides and Paenoxyaenides would seem to imply they were originally believed to be oxyaenids?

    1. In the case of Oxyaenoides, at least, yes. There are a fair few 'creodont' taxa whose position re Oxyaenidae vs Hyaenodontidae has been confused over the years with hypercarnivorous members of each being convergently quite similar.

  2. You might want to edit the following two sentences:
    The earliest proviverrines are known from to the very beginning of the Eocene (Solé et al. 2014). Current thinking is that their ancestors probably immigrated into Europe time from Africa.


    The Carnivora may be widespread and various but surely the Tasmanian Devil dominates any list of living carnivores (at least for most badass).

    1. Corrections made, thank you for pointing them out. But I don't think you can make too many claims for the superiority of Tasmanian devils considering that as soon as they were faced with pressure from a placental carnivore they just kind of folded.


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