Giant Jaguar or American Lion? Scientists Study a Species that Roamed Wisconsin During the Last Ice Age
by Jessica Lopez, age 13
The American Lion is an extinct big cat that populated North America about 11,000 years ago. This is around the same time that the humans who survived the Ice Age migrated to what is now known as Wisconsin. The American lion is also referred to as the American cave lion or the North American lion. It was one of the largest cats to exist on Earth.
The American lion has some similarities to other living species in the big cat family and with another extinct species, a type of European cave lion. For this reason, scientists have had difficulty pinpointing where this species exactly originated. Researchers have conducted various studies to try to determine the relatives of the American lion. It turns out that aside from being similar to many species of big cats, such as jaguars, the American lion seems akin to several species from Asia and Africa.
Another more recent study contradicts the hypothesis of the American lion being closely related to jaguars. Ancient samples of DNA were tested and now show that this lion was most directly related to the species of extinct European cave lions along with living African lions.
Scientists have excavated and studied the fossils of the American lion population to visualize what the species looked like. As a result of this research, it is known that the American lion had longer legs than most other Ice Age cats, especially the males. This gave them an advantage when pursuing their prey. The American lion also had differently positioned teeth, with the top cone-shaped canines fitting behind their bottom canines. This lion used its sharp teeth and long legs to hunt in large grasslands and other open terrains. Its prey included bison, mammoths, mastodons, and other large animals.
The American lion had several key differences from living big cats. However, we can still observe today's species and learn more about what the American lion might have been like and how it might have lived during the aftermath of the Ice Age.
Illinois State Museum