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If you could have wandered across the United States in the area that is now the Great Plains 15,000 years ago, you may have mistaken it for the African Serengeti. Elephants, camels, horses, cheetahs . . . all would be roaming across the vast savannahs of North America.  And the most impressive of all would have been the North American Lion.


Fossilized skull of Panthera atrox, the North American Lion, on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

By about 15,000 years ago, the last of the Ice Age glaciations was beginning to end. As the Earth warmed and the glaciers retreated, animals known as the "Pleistocene megafauna" began expanding into the grasslands and savannahs that were left behind. Among the megafauna that could be found in North America at the time were the mammoths and mastodons (relatives of the elephants), the American cheetah (actually a relative and not a true cheetah), the short-faced bear (a long-legged version of the grizzly designed for running), antelopes, the dire wolf, the sabertooth cat, the American camel, the Teratorn giant vulture, the nine-foot sabertooth salmon, the six-foot giant tortoise, and the apex predator, the North American Lion.

The American Lion first appears in the fossil record about 1.8 million years ago. Originally a North American animal, the American Lion also spread into South America when the falling sea levels caused by the Ice Age produced a land bridge between the two continents, allowing megafauna to move north and south (a period known as "The Great Interchange"). About one hundred complete skeletons of the American Lion have been found preserved in the La Brea tar pits in California. Other fossils have been found in Canada, Texas, Idaho, Nevada, Nebraska, Wyoming, Mississippi, northern Florida, Mexico, and Peru. These skeletons show that it was about 30 percent larger than today's African Lion, measuring about 10 feet long, 4 feet high at the shoulder, and weighing about 750 pounds--the males were larger than the females. The legs were slightly longer relative to the body size, and the brain was slightly larger.

During this time, other lion species (in the genus Panthera) were found in Africa (where they first appeared about 3.5 million years ago), Europe, and Asia. Cave paintings by Cro-Magnon people in Europe depict lions without manes. Of the large mammal species on earth at the time, only humans had a wider distribution. It is generally accepted that the ancestors of the American Lion crossed into North America from Asia during the periods when the Beringian land bridge was open between Siberia and Alaska. The American Lion ranged from Alaska all the way to Peru, and although it seems to have preferred open grassland and savannah habitat, and is not found in forested areas, it lived in a wide range of habitat, from dry hot savannah to colder tundra.

The fact that males were larger than females indicates that American Lions lived in social groups, with males competing with each other for control of the group. Many of the skulls have broken teeth, which may have resulted from battles over dominance. The number of male and female found next to prey animals in the La Brea tar pits is roughly equal, however, indicating that unlike modern lions, in which the females do all the hunting, the American Lion hunted in male-female pairs or small groups. Modern lions are ambush hunters that carefully stalk their prey and then make a sudden rush. The American Lion, with its longer legs and its more powerful skull and jaws, may have been a better runner, pursuing its prey over longer distances.

Ever since its discovery, it has been debated how closely the American Lion is related to other cat species. Joseph Leidy, the Philadelphia paleontologist who first described the species in 1852, from a jawbone found in Mississippi, considered it to be a distinct species of lion, and named it Felis atrox (later placed in the genus Panthera). Over time, other authorities argued that the American Lion was a subspecies of the African Lion, and named it Panthera leo atrox. In 2010 another study by Danish and American scientists concluded that while the American Lion was its own distinct species, the skull had more traits in common with the jaguar than with lions, and concluded that Panthera atrox should be called the Giant Jaguar instead.

By 11,000 years ago, the American Lion--and all the rest of the large animals in North America--were extinct, an event known as the Pleistocene Megafauna Extinction Event. There has been much debate about the causes of this extinction wave. One school of thought blames the changing climatic conditions which ended the Ice Ages. Another group of scientists has postulated that a meteor impact in North America wiped out the megafauna. Perhaps the most common explanation is the entry of humans from Siberia into North America about 13,000 years ago, who hunted the megafauna to extinction. (American Lion bones have been found in Paleo-Indian trash middens, indicating that the early North Americans were capable of hunting and killing them.) It may be significant that the large North American animals who survived the Megafauna Extinction--bison, moose, caribou, musk oxen, bighorn sheep--all had Asian ancestors who were already adapted to live in the presence of human hunters (one exception was the pronghorn, which had evolved speed to escape American cheetahs, which may have protected them from Paleo-Indian hunters). The North American animals that died out, including the American Lion, were those that had evolved in the absence of human hunters.

On the other hand, critics point out, not all of the animals that died out in the extinction were species that would have been hunted by humans. Even for those that were, it is enormously difficult even for modern hunters with high-powered rifles to hunt a species to extinction--as the species gets less and less common, subsistence hunters switch to other species that are more easily-found, allowing the rare individuals to recover and repopulate. And the lessons learned by those who are deliberately trying to exterminate harmful invasive species demonstrate that it is not at all a simple task to eradicate a group of organisms by killing them. To really wipe out an entire species, seems to require a loss of habitat.

It remains a mystery.

Originally posted to SciTech on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 12:56 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  the meteor impact hypothesis (25+ / 0-)

    has had very, very persistant legs that never seem to go away.

    I have to admit, even I fell for the admittedly cursory and weak evidence for it. How convienent, that the ice cap on the continent erased all evidence of a crater. It's just a little too pat a theory for me.

    I'm sticking with humans arrived in North America and were like "hot damn, we at the Old Country Buffet!" mixed with a bit of climate change.

    Dawkins is to atheism as Rand is to personal responsibility (not an original but rather apt)

    by terrypinder on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 01:02:52 PM PST

  •  Nice diary. I love learning about the Pleistocene. (18+ / 0-)

    But I think that the idea that humans were not at least partly responsible for the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna in North America is silly.  I can't believe that scientists are still allowed to publish papers suggesting that it was climate alone that killed off all those species.  (BTW, the meteor theory has been largely debunked on multiple fronts:

    It seems totally obvious to me that human hunting pressure, combined with a rapidly changing climate is the culprit.  When environmental conditions are challenging and good habitat is hard to find, it doesn't take a lot of hunting to tip a species from population growth to decline.  And once Allee effects start kicking in, you can get a rapid extinction vortex.

    The next Noah will work a short shift. - Charles Bowden

    by Scott in NAZ on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 01:09:51 PM PST

  •  Thanks Lenny (16+ / 0-)

    Was totally unaware of the NA Lion.  Especially since they've been found in La Brea, that used to make the Science Channel or Animal Planet.

    OTOH, the extinction was probably caused by ancient aliens, I'm sure that's on the Science Channel....X^|

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 01:15:04 PM PST

  •   A Thousand Recs (14+ / 0-)

    I don't think it was that man hunted the predators, so much as the fact that Man competed for the predator's prey. Humans might have had primitive weapons but they had modern brains. They had their own Einstein their own Steve Jobs. A good diary. Understanding the great mega final extinction has helped me to understand many other aspects of large mammals and North America. Word recognition messing up.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 02:02:47 PM PST

    •  that is a very good point (14+ / 0-)
      I don't think it was that man hunted the predators, so much as the fact that Man competed for the predator's prey.
      That is indeed something that makes predators vulnerable--and large predators that need large prey herds would be the MOST vulnerable.
      Humans might have had primitive weapons but they had modern brains.
      We do tend to forget this. They weren't stupid--they had the same brains we do.  Even today, you can take a Stone Age child from an Amazon tribe, put him through college, and he can design a supercomputer or fly a jumbo jet.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 02:08:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Literacy rewiring as an example of a theory I have (7+ / 0-)

        Ever hear of those poets in Mongolia who can recite by memory and without flaw the Mongolian epic poem - the longest such poem known to humanity.

        As soon as a person learns to read and write, they can no longer memorize entire poems like that with perfect recall.

        My theory: the brains of those early Native Americans had something modern people have lost in a transition. Something that enabled them to hunt out these animals much more effectively.

        Alternatively: Humans may have simply changed key links in the habitat or wiped out a key link in the food chain... like the old "step on a butterfly when traveling in time and wipe out the future" idea - the simple removal of one kind of field mouse, or destruction of one small forest to clear a home might have been the key link between all the surrounding elements.

        Or... maybe they just had meteorite tipped spears. :P

        OMG, like, gag them with a multi-colored spoon. Like, ya know.

        by Jyotai on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 03:23:53 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  My thought also (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Aunt Pat

          All that may have been required is humans wiping out or severely depleting a single critical link, and everything dependent on that link would vanish.

          •  Plus time (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Aunt Pat

            We talk about how its hard to wipe another species out of an area... but that's with:

            1. Invasive species which by success of invading have shown themselves good at adapting to new threats.

            2. Measured in a span of a few years, but these early Americans had thousands of years to get the job done.

            Consider that while its amazingly hard to clear a frog out of Oz, in a few short centuries Europeans cleared wolves out of most of North America - and only 'failed' because they realized it was a bad idea. With most of that clearing happening on the tail decades when it became an active plan...

            I'm pretty sure that if I were a stone age native american seeing a 10-foot long lion walking about, I would put it on the calendar to figure out a way to get rid of the thing before it ate my entire community...

            We have a luxury in the 21st century of tolerating big predators in the wild. Its a luxury we've had for more centuries than we have exercised it... But in 14000 BC, WE were in the wild with them.

            OMG, like, gag them with a multi-colored spoon. Like, ya know.

            by Jyotai on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 07:23:07 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Good points (0+ / 0-)

              But I would point to Hawai'i, where massive resources have been expended addressing the invasive species problem for many decades. Sure, most of that has been expended to control the worst of the invaders, but it is worth noting that, of the thousands of introduced species there which have escaped into the wild, NOT ONE has been eradicated in spite of these efforts. Not every one of those thousands is necessarily more adaptable than the average member of the megafauna under discussion simply because it was able to reproduce in the wild in a new location.

              •  I live in Florida, where everywhere you look you (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Aunt Pat

                see SOMETHING alive that isn't supposed to be here . . . .

                We too have expended a tremendous amount of time, effort and money trying to eradicate hundreds of invasive species from Burmese Pythons to Lionfish to Monk Parakeets, and failing miserably at all of them.

                In the end, reality always wins.

                by Lenny Flank on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 08:15:29 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

  •  We still sort of have lions in North America: (7+ / 0-)

    Mountain Lions (which have lots of other names).

    I pretty much grew up at the tar pits and love all the animal reconstructions there.

  •  a fascinating diary (4+ / 0-)

    needless to say, you would not want to mess with a full grown american lion, anymore than you'd want to mess with a wild lion today. that is, unless you wanted to become lunch..

  •  Interesting diary, Lenny (5+ / 0-)

    I used to find camel bones when I was a kid in Nebraska.  It really opened my eyes to the endless drama of history, thinking of those "African" critters stalking where there are now only corn stalks.

    I also find it hard to believe that prehistoric tribes hunted all these animals to extinction.

    As you pointed out, when the critters get scarce and hard to find, folks will start going after more plentiful bison, for instance, and the lions can hide out in the rugged foothills and recover.

    Are there any theories that incorporate volcanoes into those extinctions?

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 04:10:34 PM PST

  •  The dinosaurs.. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Aunt Pat

     The comet/meteor theory per dinosaurs has always troubled me too since the last fossils of dinosaurs one finds in the rock layers is almost always several feet below the so-called K/T later ,the making between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.

       Now don't get me wrong I'm not saying terrestrial impacts didn't have some effect just that it may have been more of a coup de grace for ecosystems already under severe stress/duress.

       Sorry for the OT comment.

  •  The thing that amazed me the most when I first (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    worldlotus, matching mole, Aunt Pat

    learned of all these other animals that used to live here is how recently it all was. 10,000 years is very very recent as far as animals go. Yesterday.

    Have you ever read Valerius Geist? What he first wrote seemed fantastical at the time, and many poo pooed the idea of animals having thoughts, but now much of what he thought is mainstream. He also wrote books for general audiences most of which I have. (about N American ungulates) Most of what he says about animals is based on the world they evolved in which was mostly prior to 10K years ago.

    One of his interesting ideas was that N American was predator limited meaning prey numbers were limited by the number of prey they could catch. Predators evolved to be more efficient at catching and prey evolved to be more efficient at running away or protecting themselves. Asia and Euro were more food limited and gave rise to food specialists whose numbers were more limited by the available plants they could eat and digest.

    Geist also remarked that the skeletons of the tar pits are well fed but show much damage from catching prey. A difficult life for a predator but not a hungry one.

    I've noticed we, as well as large carnivores, hunt the largest prey we are able to. I'd thin a 450lb lion would need very large prey to sustain itself. Chasing small and nimble prey would quickly get old. Humans have proved themselves capable of very successfully hunting any large herbivore, even elephants, with extremely primitive tools.

    A possibility as to why it took us so long to cross the land bridge (according to Geist) was that the short faced bear would have been very good at preying on humans. And perhaps the extinction of the bear was what allowed humans to successfully immigrate into N America.

    When one thinks of how recently most of our species of large mammals came here, it makes them (and us) seem like invasives. Grizzly bear, gray wolf, humans, elk, wolverine, moose, all immigrants.

    I'd hoped that when I returned from working this would have hit rec list or rescue. I find the subject interesting.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 05:49:16 PM PST

    •  I refer to us as such (0+ / 0-)

      ... when leading hikes for the Sierra Club into wilderness areas. I have to give a preliminary speech warning hikers of potential hazards: mostly heat stroke or twisting an ankle, though we have black bears and cougars. But the leading hazard is from invasive primates, especially armed invasives.

      There's a million ways to laugh; everyone's a path.

      by Tom Lum Forest on Sat Jan 04, 2014 at 04:16:12 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Most insightful (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Aunt Pat, Adam AZ

    "And the lessons learned by those who are deliberately trying to exterminate harmful invasive species demonstrate that it is not at all a simple task to eradicate a group of organisms by killing them."

    As someone who has spent endless efforts trying to address the invasive species problems on our land in Hawai'i, this struck me as the most insightful comment I have ever seen on the subject of human hunting being the cause of the megafauna extinction.

    However, the fact that it occurred right on the heels of humans' arrival in the Americas is unlikely to be a coincidence. Although your argument has convinced me that hunting was not likely the cause, the same invasive species experience HAS shown that a single, seemingly innocuous plant, animal, or even microscopic organism can have devastating consequences. Perhaps it was something the people brought, intentionally or not - a rat in the luggage, an organism carried by their dogs, a seed attached to a fur dislodged in the wrong spot.

    I do notice one fact remaining a constant throughout these extinction events - the largest animals are the first to go when there is some type of environmental disruption. A sobering thought when one considers the level of disruption humans are currently responsible for, and that humans are quite large on the scale of life, from virus to whale.

  •  Have seen its bones many times at the La Brea Tar (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Be Skeptical, Aunt Pat

    Pits since I was a kid. All of the animals mentioned in your
    diary have been found there and are mounted in the Page Museum on the grounds. This species used to be called "The Great Lion" in my youth. I used to stare out my bay window overlooking La Brea Avenue in L.A. decades ago and imagined the "Pleistocene Parade" passing right by that very spot.

    I adored all this stuff then. (I still do, to come to think of it.)
    I read and reread an old book about the Pits then,  Monsters of Old Los Angeles (by Charles M. Martin)  about a fantasy raccoon named "Racky" who witnessed the drama at the Pits. The entire cast of species characters was there. A librarian turned me on to the book, unforgettably.

    "The soil under the grass is dreaming of a young forest, and under the pavement the soil is dreaming of grass."--Wendell Berry

    by Wildthumb on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 07:21:42 PM PST

  •  Instead of hunted to extinction, humans may have (0+ / 0-)

    simply introduced a pathogen.

    •  that would explain the Lions, but then you'd still (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Adam AZ

      have the other species that also disappeared to explain . . . Giant Tortoises, for instance, would not have shared any pathogens with the Lions, since reptile biology is different from mammalian.

      That's the catch----it doesn't seem as if ANY single cause is capable of explaining ALL of the large number of extinctions that happened. Which is what convinces me that it was a combination of causes.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 01:31:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Climate was incidental (0+ / 0-)

    Extinctions times varied between continents coinciding with the advent of modern humans. There were very few in Africa, and they were before 40K years ago. Europe was next. Australia was hit 40K years ago when people got there. The Americas were hit as the last glaciation ended 13K years ago. But the glaciation was most notable for letting Big Game Hunters in; the direct impact on the megafauna was incidental. The best general survey of climate vs. people is here: Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution which though 25 years old is the single best survey of the complete theoretical marketplace. One chapter even bears just that title.

    In short: humans, in cold blood, with spears.

    There's a million ways to laugh; everyone's a path.

    by Tom Lum Forest on Sat Jan 04, 2014 at 03:08:46 PM PST

  •  Bigger areas have greater ecological complexity (0+ / 0-)

    To reduce complexity across the board, an area's carrying capacity has to be reduced. That could be glaciation, desertification, or any other reduction in temperature or precipitation - or, rarely, soil nutrients. At least that's the pre-human history. Temporary simplification in disturbance regimes governed by flood, fire, or windstorm is offset over time by the richness of the successional cycle.

    We, however are a novel disturbance regime. We clear-cut, strip-mine, plow and pave habitats, making them unusable for large animals. So the trophic pyramid is much shorter. In addition, we fragment habitats, which further constrains the maximum size of supportable non-human animal. A cougar needs 50 square miles of lightly or undisturbed habitat to support itself.

    So what's this got to do with North America, 13K BC? We come in and we hunt large animals - bigger than us. They do not fear us, and have no time to acquire fear before we kill them all. They reproduce slowly, so cannot recover faster than we eat them. Our population grows geometrically as we eat the biggest herbivores - which coincidentally starves all the predators that depend on them. The largest wild animals in the Americas - bears, elk, moose, bison - are recent immigrants from Eurasia who adapted to us there. The largest animals native to North America prior to 400K BC are 80# pronghorns and 150# cougars. Anything bigger was eaten or starved.

    There's a million ways to laugh; everyone's a path.

    by Tom Lum Forest on Sat Jan 04, 2014 at 03:31:25 PM PST

  •  Wow....just....WOW! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    the Teratorn giant vulture, the nine-foot sabertooth salmon, the six-foot giant tortoise, and the apex predator, the North American Lion.
    Now THAT I would have paid serious money to see!

    Seriously, thanks for a lovely ecological snapshot, Lenny

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