Discover American Cave Lions

American Lion SkeletonThe American cave lion (Panthera atrox) lived in North America, from Alaska to Mexico, in the last Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs, from around 340,000 years ago to 11,000 years ago. They diverged from the Eurasian cave lion line when crossing over the Beringia land bridge, though the two species remained very similar. It seems that American cave lions were more populous in Western North America, though some may have made it to the Midwest or East coast.

American cave lions would have been bigger than modern African lions. They stood four feet at the shoulder and measured eight feet from nose to tail. It is probable that a fully grown American lion would have weighed around 500 pounds. They had long legs, meaning that they were fast. They could have run at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. The anatomy of American lions is rather well known from specimens collected at the La Brea tar pits.


American Lion SkullsAlthough many American lion fossils have been found at this site, there are few in relation to the number of fossils discovered from other large cats, such as Smilodon. This may indicate that P. atrox was more intelligent and capable of avoiding traps.

La Brea was a woodland setting when P. atrox was alive. The number of American lion fossils present at the site may indicate that they were comfortable in forests. This is contrary to many popular theories that they would have been more inclined to hunt in open grasslands, like modern lions. Many of the fossils of other animals which have been found in association with American lion fossils have been animals that lived in grasslands. Their diet seems to have consisted of large grazing mammals, like bison, mammoths, camels, deer, and horses.

Although they are called “lions”, American cave lions could possibly be more closely related to tigers or jaguars. Rock art shows us that these big cats lacked a mane. It is still unknown whether they hunted in groups, like modern lions, or alone, like tigers. It is extremely rare to find multiple P. atrox fossils grouped together, indicating that they were perhaps solitary.


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Humans making their way into the Americas from Asia would have encountered American lions. Some fossil evidence suggests that humans were predators to the lions. P. atrox bones have been found with marks from weapons and knives. This supports the argument that humans’ hunting caused the extinction of American lions, among many other extinctions.

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