The American lion (Panthera leo atrox) inhabited all parts of North America below the Late Pleistocene ice sheets. They thrived from about 120,000 to 10,000 years ago, until the end of the Pleistocene Era. You may sometimes hear the American lion referred to as the American cave lion or Naegele’s giant jaguar. The American lion was one of the largest Pleistocene cats, weighing 500 to more than 700 pounds.
The giant American lion roamed across all of North America from Alaska south to Mexico and Peru. In Los Angeles, California, the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits is a treasure trove of American lion fossils that lived in the area. Over 80 preserved fossils removed from the tar pits reveal in-depth details about this extinct lion’s physical appearance.
Since American Lions lived during the Ice Age, they were accustomed to cold conditions and diverse habitats throughout North America. Paleontologists believe American lions favored living in open grassland savannahs. They most likely sought shelter in caves, canyons and overhanging cliffs and made bedding for their dens from grass, hay and dried leaves.
The North American lion’s long, slim legs provided speeds up to 30 miles per hour for preying upon North American horses, camels and deer. Evidence found in the La Brea Tar Pits suggests that American lions often hunted in groups for taking down large prey, such as mammoth and bison, but they also hunted alone or in pairs.
Debates exist among paleontologists and archaeologists about what brought about the extinction of many mammals, birds and vegetation at the end of the Pleistocene Era. American lions, saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, cave bears and dire wolves are only a few of the animals wiped out at the end of the Ice Age. Some scientists believe dramatic climate change was the cause; others believe humans were to blame with their superior minds and hunting skills. Some scientists argue that lack of prey resulted in the demise of the American lion, but studies of the fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits seem to suggest that the lions had plenty of food to eat right up until their extinction. No specific evidence exists as to why the North American lion became extinct.
- Penn State University: Phylogeography of Lions (Panthera leo ssp.)
- Vanderbilt University: Evidence Shows Starvation Did Not Cause Saber Tooth Cat Extinction
- San Diego Natural History Museum: Fossil Field Guide - American Lion
- Encyclopedia of Life: American Lion
- University of Washington: Deciphering North American Pleistocene Extinctions
- David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images