Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Winds of Eden and the American Lion



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When I was doing my research for Winds of Eden, the third prehistoric adventure book in my Shadows on the Trail Trilogy, I was searching for large predators that were around at the same time as the Folsom People in my books, sometime around 10,700 years ago. If you have read the first two books of the Shadows on the Trail Trilogy, you know how I like putting the Folsom People in precarious and unpredictable situations with some of the wilder wildlife of the Pleistocene.  

One of the most intriguing North American Pleistocene predators I found in my research was the 
Figure one. Reconstruction of an American Lion
(Panthera leo atrox).
American Lion or Panthera leo atrox. Its two distinguishing characteristics were its massive size and its long, slender limbs. Based on skeletal remains, Panthera leo atrox is estimated to have weighed on average between 390 to 520 pounds with larger specimens exceeding well over 700 pounds. Panthera leo atrox ranged in length from 5.3 to 8.2 feet long. Now, that was a big cat! Only European cave lions rivaled the American Lion’s size.  

Based on where paleontologists have found the skeletal remains of Panthera leo atrox, it appears that this large cat preferred living in open country. According to KurtĂ©n and Anderson in their remarkable book Pleistocene Mammals of North America, there is some evidence that Peloindians hunted American lions. Remains of Panthera leo atrox were found in a refuse pile in Jaguar Cave in Idaho where associated charcoal was radiocarbon-dated to 10,370 ± 350 years BP (age in years before
Figure two. Size comparison between human, African Lion and American Lion.
Courtesy of Animalgals.wordpress.com
1950). The extinction of Panthera leo atrox seemed to have occurred after that, around 10,000 years ago or near the end of the Pleistocene. This was well within the timeframe for when the Shadows on the Trail Trilogy took place. Perhaps the readers of Winds of Eden may see one or two of these American Lions in Winds of Eden. Who knows? Well, I know, but I am not telling.  

                                                      The genetic lineage of Panthera leo atrox is not without controversy. Based on skeletal remains, paleontologists continue to debate whether Panthera leo atrox was more lion-like or jaguar-like. In the first half of the last century, French paleontologist Marcellin Boule and German paleontologist Max Hilzheimer stated that Panthera leo atrox had a mosaic of features from both lions and jaguars, but that a consolidation of
Figure three. Skeleton from American Lion at the George C.
Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits.   
its features did not match any living species. Later in the century, John Merriam and Chester Stock proposed that after studying skulls from Panthera leo atrox, the mammal more closely resembled a jaguar than a lion. In the latest study, John M. Harris and Per Christianson focused on the cranium and jaws of Panthera leo atrox and proposed them to be more jaguar-like.

I am sure the debate will continue, but from my perspective, the bottom line is that Panthera leo atrox or the American Lion was appreciably larger and genetically different than both the living versions of the African lion and the South American jaguar. Since skeletal remains cannot directly tell us what the behavior and hunting habits of Panthera leo atrox were, I am going to assume a modern-day analogy to one of the most fierce open country predators, the African Lion.

Figure four. Skull of American Lion,
sixteen inches long, at the
National Museum of Natural History.
An adult male African lion stands three feet high at the shoulders and weighs between 350 to 440 pounds. This is a massive beast, but it is somewhat diminutive compared to the extinct Panthera leo atrox. In fact, the African Lion is twenty–five per cent smaller than the skeletal remains of Panthera leo atrox. African lion males have manes that vary in both color and fullness. The fur coats on African lions blend well in a semi-desert environment and their belly fur is usually paler as to neutralize shadows from the sun. In starlight, lions are gray and people have described them as ghostlike. There is no evidence whether the males of Panthera leo atrox had manes or what the coloration was for this extinct species.  

African lions are agile and graceful. A surprise rush is a critical factor in the success of a lion during a hunt. Once the lion has caught its prey, it uses its claws and forelimbs like grappling hooks to seize and drag the prey to their mouths. The African lion’s spine is supple enough to allow it to press its belly against the ground while arching its back like a bow in anticipation of leaping at its prey. The African Lion’s legs are powerful and they are able to leap over fences as tall as twelve feet. African lions can spring forward at distances of over forty feet and they can run in short bursts at over forty miles per hour. It is hard to imagine what the much larger Panthera leo atrox could have done. Like most carnivores, the African Lion has two pairs of bladelike carnassial teeth located about halfway between the front of the jaw and the jaw joint. The carnassial teeth work together like scissors, allowing lions and other carnivores to slice off strips of flesh.

One of the more frightening characteristics of African lions is that they live and hunt in prides, which typically consists of five females, two males, and their young. While females do most of the hunting, the male lions protect the pride and patrol the territory, always on the lookout for other males and marking their territory with urine.

Sight is the primary sense that African lions use to live and hunt. African lions are very opportunistic
Figure five. African Lion, King of the Living Beasts. 
and will hunt at any time of the day or night, but they prefer darkness since this provides them an optimal advantage. When the lion pride hunts together, they usually spread out along a front or semi-circle. Lions have a reflective layer at the back of their eye that amplifies light into the eyeballs. This reflective layer makes a lion’s eyes shine in the dark. An African lion’s pupil is oval to round, just like ours. Smell and hearing are the next mostly widely used senses used by African lions.  African lions obtain most of their needed water from the animals they eat. They can survive in desert climates as long as there are animals to eat.  

Did Panthera leo atrox live and hunt in prides? We do not know. Just imagine if you are a Paleoindian hunter in the Folsom People’s tribe and you are armed with only spears. Then imagine that you bump into a solitary Panthera leo atrox or maybe even a pride of Panthera leo atrox? That would be a truly frightening experience. Read Winds of Eden and find out what happens. The first two books of the Shadows on the Trail Trilogy are also available! Click to order!