Extinct Animals – American Lion

American Lion—The American lion was substantially larger than the living lion. Bones from more than 100 individuals have been recovered from the Rancho La Brea asphalt deposits. (Renata Cunha)

Scientific name: Panthera leo atrox
Scientific classification:
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivore
Family: Felidae
When did it become extinct? The American lion became extinct around 10,000 years ago.
Where did it live? This cat was widespread in America, and its remains have been found from Alaska all the way down to Southern California. No remains have been found in the eastern United States or on the Florida peninsula.

The American lion is a very well known fossil animal. More than 100 specimens of this cat have been recovered from the asphalt deposits of Rancho La Brea alone, and disjointed bones and entire skeletons have been recovered from a host of other sites. All this material gives us a good idea of what this animal looked like as well as how it lived.

Similarity with other lions:

The bones of the American lion are very similar to the lion ( Panthera leo ) we know today, but scientists disagree on how these two animals are related. We do know that felines of lion proportions crossed into America via the Bering land bridge, and the American lion may simply be a subspecies of the living lion or possibly the same as the extinct European lion ( Panthera leo spelaea ), commonly known as the cave lion. Alternatively, the American lion may have been a distinct species and more similar, genetically, to the jaguar ( Panthera onca ). This extinct American cat was a big animal and one of the largest predators of the Americas, second only to the short-faced bears. It was around 25 percent larger than an average African lion, and it also had relatively longer legs.

His living style and his behavior:

We know this was a big, fearsome cat, but can ancient remains shed any light on how this feline lived? Is it possible to say whether the American lion was a social animal that lived and hunted in prides, as lions do today, or whether it was a solitary predator? Amazingly, there is some evidence to suggest that the American lion used teamwork to catch and subdue prey. This evidence is in the shape of a 36,000-year-old mummifi ed bison that was found in Alaska by a gold prospector in 1979. Blue Babe, as this bison came to be known, has wounds that seem to be the work of two or three American lions. In the hide of this dead animal are the puncture wounds made by canine teeth and the characteristic slashes made by large feline claws. The only other animal capable of inflicting such wounds was the large scimitar cat, Homotherium serum , but a bite from this animal would have left a big tear in the skin, rather than puncture wounds. For some unknown reason, the lions that attacked this bison only ate part of the carcass before they were disturbed. We know the kill was made in winter as the bison had its winter coat and good stores of fat under its skin in preparation for the harsh conditions ahead. Perhaps some really bad weather closed in, forcing the lions to abandon their kill. Most tellingly of all, there was a large piece of American lion cheek tooth buried in the neck of the bison. Maybe the killers returned to the carcass after it had been frozen, and as they gnawed at the rigid flesh, one of them broke a tooth. The carcass was left for good and eventually covered by silt during the spring thaw, only to be unearthed by a high-pressure water hose 36,000 years later.

Finds like Blue Babe give us vivid glimpses of the how the American lion lived, and as with other extinct animals, the bones of the animal itself also tell many stories. Two specimens of the American lion from the Yukon show severe damage to the front of the lower jaw. The damage had healed, leaving large swellings on the mandible. We know that living lions are kicked in the face by struggling prey, and it seems that the American lion was also met with a hoof in the face when it was tackling the large herbivores of prehistoric North America. Not only did these cats get injured by their prey, but they also suffered from various diseases. One specimen from the Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming, has the telltale signs of osteoarthritis around the knee joint. This painful condition undoubtedly affected the ability of this individual to hunt eff ectively. Fast pursuits may have been impossible for it, so instead, it may have relied on scavenging, and perhaps it was the smell of decaying fl esh that drew it to its death in the huge pitfall trap that is Natural Trap Cave.

How did he disappear and when?

Like all the other American megafauna, we will never know the exact cause of the demise of this cat. As a species, the American lion survived for many thousands of years, experiencing glaciations and warm interglacial, but like much of the American megafauna, it disappeared at the end of the last glaciation. Humans were spreading though North  America at this time, and as they hunted the prey of the American lion, this feline and humans were in direct competition. Various finds from around Europe show that prehistoric humans hunted lions, but it is doubtful whether direct human hunting could have led to the extinction of this cat. It is highly likely that this animal may have been better suited to the habitats and the colder conditions of the glaciations, rather than to the warm periods, and the pressure of climate change on its prey may have been amplified by human activity.

• American lions were drawn to the Rancho La Brea because the sticky asphalt was a trap for all sorts of animals . The cats were attracted to the struggling animals, and they, too, became hopelessly stuck, eventually becoming entombed in the sticky tar. With this said, there are fewer American lions in the deposits than other predators such as saber tooth cats and dire wolves. Perhaps scavenging was only a last resort for the American lion, or maybe they were more wary of the potential dangers of tar pits.

• You can see the mummified remains of Blue Babe in the University of Alaska Museum. It is known as Blue Babe because phosphorus in the bison’s tissues reacted with iron in the soil to produce a white substance called vivianite. This mineral changes to a brilliant blue when it is exposed to the air.

Further Reading: Kurtén, B. “The Pleistocene Lion of Beringia.” Annales Zoologici Fennici 22 (1985): 117–21.


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