American Lion, Panthera leo atrox or P. atrox

The American lion (Panthera leo atrox or P. atrox) is also known as the North American lion, American cave lion, or Naegele’s giant jaguar. It is an extinct species that was native to North America and the northwestern parts of South America during the Pleistocene era. It lived up to eleven thousand years ago. During the last interglacial period in North America (the Sangamonian Stage), the American lion’s range included the Americas south of Alaska. The earliest fossils of these big cats were found from this time. After this period, the range of the American lion spread greatly from Alberta in Canada, through Maryland in the United States, and as far south as Peru. This lion has been found to be a from a sister lineage of the Eurasian cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea or P. spelaea).

There has been a lot of debate about the classification of the American lion. Initially, it was classified as a definite species of Pantherinae. It was given the scientific name of Panthera atrox, meaning “fearsome panther” or “cruel” in Latin. The skull of the American lion was most similar to a jaguar, and some authors later excepted the view because of this. Other experts disagreed, asserting that it was more similar to an African lion than a panther or jaguar. After this confusion, the American lion was classified as a subspecies of P. leo atrox, instead of a separate species.

Studies of the lineage of the American lion have proved unfruitful in clearing up the classification debates. One author recognizes the American lion to be closer to a tiger or P. tigris. The author notes a comparison between skull shapes. A recent study has shown that, after examination of the teeth, skull, and jaw, the American lion is an individual that is distinct from all other species. However, DNA evidence shows that the American lion is from a sister lineage of the cave lion.

The American lion was estimated to have been four feet in height (at its shoulder), and may have been as long as eight feet. Compared to its rival carnivore the giant short faced bear it was small. An average weight is thought to have been around 563 pounds, although one specimen may have weighed774 pounds. The teeth of the American lion are similar to that of modern lions, but they were much larger.

The American lion preferred to live in open areas, unlike other big cats from the same era like the jaguar that preferred forests. It is thought that these extinct cats used caves or fissures to escape from the cold of its environment. They may have even used plant material to line their dens, like modern Siberian tigers today. It is thought that the American lion was smart enough to avoid hazards like the La Brea tar pits, because fewer skeletons have been found there as compared to other large hunting mammals at that time. They most likely fed on North American horses, tapirs, camels, and bison. They may have also eaten deer, mammoths, and other large plant-eating animals. The extinction of this species may have occurred due to the dying out of its prey, and possibly due to human predation. About one hundred American lion specimens were found in the La Brea tar pits and a skull currently resides at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Image Caption: La Brea Tar Pits 2009. Credit: reverendlukewarm/Wikipedia(CC BY-SA 2.0)