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How cougars survived the Pleistocene mass extinction discovered

This is Larisa DeSantis at the La Brea Tar Pits studying the dental wear on fossil teeth of cougars, saber-tooth cats and American lions.
Credit: Blaine Schubert Usage Restrictions: None

Cougars and jaguars are the only two species of large carnivorous cats that survived the mass extinction of the majority of animal life about 12,000 years ago. Larisa R. G. DeSantis, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, and Ryan Haupt at the University of Wyoming have discovered how cougars survived the Pleistocene extinction. The research was published in the April 23, 2014, issue of the journal Biology Letters.

Six species of large cats roamed North America prior to the Pleistocene extinction. These animals included the saber-toothed cats, the American lion, cougars, and jaguars. Only the cougar and the jaguar have survived to the present. The researchers conclude that diet and the type of food that cougars eat were responsible for their survival.

Cougars are opportunistic predators. Cougars usually consume the entire prey animal as soon as they kill the animal. Cougars will eat dead animals that they may happen to find. This opportunistic pattern of diet enabled cougars to survive a period of little prey and diminishing species of prey. Larger carnivorous cat species in ancient North America would kill and eat only a portion of the kill and return to the kill later for another feeding. The number of prey species became so limited due to the Pleistocene extinction that saber-toothed cast and the American lion could not survive.

The researchers compared the teeth of 50 fossil and modern cougars with the teeth from saber-tooth cats and American lions excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and with modern lions, cheetahs, and hyenas from Africa. The scientists used dental microwear texture analysis to produce a three-dimensional representation of wear patterns from the animal’s teeth. The last few meals an animal consumed can be detected using this method. Both ancient and modern cougar tooth wear patterns resemble modern hyena tooth wear patterns. The advantage of not being a finicky cat allowed the cougar to survive.

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