BIG CATS ONCE LIVED IN AMERICA
12 , 2017
the only native cat in North America that is still relatively common
though seldom seen, can weigh more than 40 pounds. The two big
cats living today in the Western Hemisphere are the mountain lion
(aka panther, cougar) and the jaguar. Much less common than bobcats,
they can weigh more than 200 or 300 pounds, respectively. Impressive?
Yes. But how would you feel about big cats weighing 600, 700 or 800
pounds roaming the area where you live? Well, they once did.
Pfaff, curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia,
knows a lot about big cats. According to him, six of these giants were
prowling around the Southeast a few thousand years ago looking for prey,
which mostly included large hoofed animals. Presumably, this was not
a good time for humans to be wandering around in the forest alone. The
earliest inhabitants of North America probably crossed paths with several
big cats that are no longer with us.
even armed with modern DNA analyses, are not in total agreement about
the evolutionary origins and relationships among many of the North American
big cats. Some hypotheses suggest they are descendants of ancient European,
Asian or African species. But the exact details of their ancestry are
not critical for appreciating them, as most authorities agree that several
were here. Of the two still with us, jaguars are mostly in Central and
South America, but individuals occasionally enter some of the southwestern
states near the Mexican border. Mountain lions are still present in
the states west of the Mississippi River, but outside of southern Florida,
no populations have been verified in the East. The other four are all
extinct, but fossil material provides confirmation of their existence.
known extinct big cat was Smilodon, the so-called saber-toothed tiger,
although true tigers are not known to have ventured south of Alaska.
Everyone has seen drawings of saber-tooths with their pair of incisors
extending from the front of the upper jaw. The longest Smilodon teeth
have been measured to be more than 10 inches in length. Upon encountering
saber-tooths, the first humans to arrive on the continent probably wondered
whether the trip across the Bering Straits from Siberia had been a good
idea. The eventual extinction of these big cats with the remarkable
teeth occurred about 10,000 years ago and was no doubt a relief to all
edible inhabitants, including early humans.
species, the scimitar-toothed cats, are known scientifically as Homotherium.
Their front canine teeth were shorter than those of Smilodon, but they
were massive and sharp enough to bring down a wooly mammoth. The scimitar-toothed
cats were as large as an African lion. But another big cat, the American
lion, was even larger, with an estimated average weight of more than
a quarter of a ton. One was estimated to have weighed more than 700
pounds. The sixth big cat, the American cheetah, was presumably like
the modern cheetah of Africa in being able to outrun fast prey, even
pronghorn antelope of the western plains.
for the decline and disappearance of Americas big cats are speculative
at best. Did competition with humans lead to their demise? I personally
doubt that early hunters with their primitive spears could have been
the direct cause of extinction for any of these cats. Mountain lions
are now virtually gone from the eastern United States, but even that
took at least a couple of centuries of relentless pursuit by men with
dogs and guns. A more likely explanation is that the big cats of the
past gradually died out with the decline of the large prey they depended
on for food.
thought is that in the distant past, a variety of big cats roamed what
is now your neighborhood. Fortunately, we still have a couple left to
be captivated by, plus the real possibility of encountering a bobcat
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