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Desert Diary


What do you call an African Lion when it naturally occurs in Europe and Asia and North America? Although this lion, Panthera leo, currently occurs only in Africa and part of southern Asia, it was much more widespread historically. A few thousand years earlier, back in the Pleistocene ice ages, its range extended from Europe and Africa into North America. Its extinction in the New World likely occurred because of the loss of so many of our large herbivores—its natural prey—around 11,000 years ago.

Panthera atrox, meaning the wicked, brutal, or cruel cat, in recognition of its size, even larger than today's African form—certainly a formidable predator.

Although not common in fossil faunas of the Chihuahuan Desert, a few remains have been found--enough for us to visualize them stalking the herds of camels, horses, and those elephants that we call mammoths, giving the open plains of the late Pleistocene the appearance of the Serengeti to our modern eyes.
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

lion head

An African lioness. Presumably the North America form looked similar, though averaging larger.



The similarity among the skeletal elements of the big cats makes discrimination between species difficult. Not everyone is happy with considering the North American form as the same species as the African Lion, and it also has been suggested that it actually is a tiger (Groiss 1996, but I have not seen the paper myself). ahh


Groiss, J. T. 1996. Der Hohlentiger Panthera tigris spelaea (Goldfuss). (The cavetiger Panthera tigris spelaea (Goldfuss)). N. Jb. Geol. Pala:ont. Mh. 1996 (7): 399-414.

Web Resources

American Lion. Reconstruction and brief notes.