by Whit Gibbons

March 12 , 2017

Bobcats, 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.

Scott 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.

Paleontologists, 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.

The best 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.

Another 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.

Reasons for the decline and disappearance of America’s 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.

An intriguing 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 almost anywhere.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)


SREL HomeUGA Home SREL Home UGA Home