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American Lion

By: Staff

Updated on: 19/04/2022

The American Lion is an extinct lion subspecies that was endemic to North America during the Pleistocene era. It is believed that a small population also inhabited northwestern South America as part of the Great American Interchange. This subspecies went extinct around 13000 calendar years ago along with mammoths and other large mammals.

Around 100 American lion fossils have been found from La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and it suggests that they were around 25% larger in size than the modern African lion. It is believed that they were the biggest lion subspecies ever existed on earth. They were also larger than the Middle Pleistocene primitive cave lion.

Scientific Classification

Species:Panthera leo
Subspecies:Panthera leo atrox (Scientific Name)

Quick Facts

Other Names:North American lion, Naegele’s giant jaguar or American cave lion.
Size:Length – 1.6 to 2.5 m .Shoulder height – Around 1.2 m.
Weight:560 to 780 pounds
Diet:North American deer, camels, tapirs, horses (now extinct), American bison, mammoths, as well as other herbivorous animals.


American Lion

At first, the American lion was thought to be a distinct species of Pantherinae. However, paleontologists later assigned this animal as a P. leo subspecies rather than a distinct species. However, some researchers believe that they were actually related to the jaguar. Mitochondrial DNA sequence data from fossils found in Alberta and Wyoming showed that they were related to the Eurasian cave lion.

Cladistic analysis has not been able to settle the phylogenetic position of the American lion. One theory suggests that the American lion is more closely related to P. tigris, whose skull shape are similar to the skull shape of American lion.

American Lion Pictures
American Lion Skeleton

A new detailed analysis by Danish zoologist Per Christiansen and the American paleontologist John Harris brings a fresh insight. The duo studied large skull samples of the modern-day cats and extinct cats using different methods. The skull of American lions had several similarities to that of modern day lions, but they also had several differences. The lower jaw was more similar to the tigers and jaguars. In fact, they even had features that are not found in any of the modern day big cats. It finally emerged as a distinct species from the jaguar, lion and tiger. So, there is no evidence whether or not true lions have ever existed in the Americas.


The earliest known specimens found in the south of Alaska region are primarily from the Sangamonian Stage. In North America, they were found in more places in the western part than in the east. They spread over Alberta to Maryland to Peru. A small population was also found in as far as Chiapas in Mexico.

Habitat and Adaptation

American Lion Images

American lions did not share their territory with jaguars. They preferred open habitats, unlike the jaguars. They are believed to have used caves or fissures to deal with cold weather. They did not dwell in prides like modern lions. They were solitary creatures.

Cause of Extinction

The American lion population disappeared around the same time-period as other megafaunal species on which they preyed upon. Trash heaps of Paleolithic American Indians suggest that human predation has been responsible for their extinction.

Interesting Facts

American Lion Skull
  • American lion was smaller compared to its competitor carnivore – the Giant short-faced bear. It was also not as heavily built as the Saber-toothed cat Smilodon which used to weigh 850 to 880 pounds.
  • A replica of an American lion jaw can be seen in the hand of renowned American paleontologist Joseph Leidy’s statue outside the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

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