You have probably heard of African lions, but did you know lions once lived around the world? During the last ice age, lions lived in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America, giving them one of the largest ranges of any mammal! The lions that lived in North America were called American lions.
For paleontologists, these lions are a source of debate; how they are related to other big cats is uncertain. Recent genetic testing suggests that American lions evolved from Eurasian cave lions that crossed the Beringia land bridge into North America.
The American lion was a fierce predator. Standing four feet tall at the shoulder and eight feet long, the American lion is slightly bigger than today’s African lion. The average American lion was very strong and bulky, weighing about 500 pounds! Despite their weight, these big cats were very fast. They had long, slender legs that allowed them to reach speeds of 30 miles per hour!
The speed and the bulk of these animals helped them catch large prey. American lions hunted other ice age animals including camelids, giant ground sloths, bison, and even young mammoths. Scientists do not yet know if the American lion hunted by itself or in groups. Regardless, the American lion was very successful. Fossils have been found from Canada to as far south as Chiapas, Mexico. With this range, American lions likely made it to the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico, which is today home to White Sands National Park.
Before the sand dunes of White Sands formed, many of the animals the American lion hunted lived along the freshwater shores of Lake Otero. Today, we find their fossilized footprints left on Alkali Flat, the remains of ancient lake Otero. American lions roamed across North America for thousands of years. However, around 10,000 years ago, they went extinct, alongside many other ice age animals. The exact reasons are unknown. Their demise may have been due to human actions, climate change, or both. Whatever the cause, the reign of the lions in North America ended with the ice age.
"American Lion, Panthera atrox." San Diego Zoo Global. Last updated November 2008. Accessed November 1, 2015. http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/_extinct/lion_american/lion_american.htm
Lange, Ian M. Ice Age Mammals of North America: A Guide to the Big, the Hairy, and the Bizarre. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2002.