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American lion – the largest lion in history

The American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)

The largest lions in history – American lions – ruled in North and South America, and thus became the hallmark of the Pleistocene landscape. How did they cope with other large predators (e.g. saber-toothed tigers) and the first people who shared the same living areas? Why did they go extinct? We will try to answer these questions in this article. In the previous article, we have presented American lions’ cousins from Europe and Asia – Eurasian cave lions.


  • Class: Mammal
  • Oder: Carnivora
  • Family: Felidae
  • Genus: Panthera
  • Species: Panthera leo
  • Subspecies: Panthera leo atrox
  • Names: The American lion, the North American lion, American cave lion, Naegele’s giant jaguar
American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)
American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)

Dating and occurrence

This extinct and great cat lived in North America and north-western regions of South America in the Pleistocene from 1.8m to 11,000 years ago. It went extinct along with mammoths and other large mammals of the Pleistocene megafauna. Genetic analyses have showed that it was a sister lineage of the European lion.

It is believed, that the American lion was an endemic species of North America, and it got to the southern continent through a land passage that connected two Americas.

However, what is interesting, the structure of the fossils found in Peru has been more similar to the bones of a big jaguar than a lion.

American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)
American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox) – skull

Appearance, diet and extinction

The body length of this predator ranged between 160-250 cm, and its average height at shoulders was 120 cm, with a weight of 250-360 kg. Thus, it was the largest known species/subspecies of the lion in the history of Earth. However, if its measurements were real, it is possible that this animal belonged to the jaguar or the tiger species.

American lion vs. smilodon

The American lion coexisted with the smilodon – the saber-toothed tiger (Smilodon populator) – but it was lighter (the smilodon weighed 360-400 kg) and had a different hunting pattern than the prehistoric tiger.

On the other hand, the American lion could have been more intelligent than the smilodon; thousands of hunting saber-toothed tigers were captured in La Brea Tar Pits, but only several tens of American lions fell into that trap.

Intelligence could have been a key feature that guaranteed survival in the Pleistocene ecosystem of North America.

American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)
American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)

Excavations and skeletons

The majority of American lions’ skeletons – about 100 – were found in La Brea Tar Pits (Los Angeles). Thanks to these fossils, the anatomy of this animal was well-explored. It turned out that the body structure and teeth had been very similar to those of modern-day lions, but the prehistoric species was larger (by 25%) and heavier.

Other predators

The habitat of the American lion was full of other tremendous predators, such as the short-faced bear (Arctodus simus) or the so-called dire wolf (Canis dirus), which competed with the American lion for food.


American lions were likely to have hunted on deer, equidae, and camelids of the species Camelophs hesternus, so-called Californian tapirs (Tapirus californicus), bison, mammoths, and other big herbivores.


The end of the last glaciation and the fact that humans increasingly hunted for the possible prey of the lions contributed to the extinction of, among others, the short-faced bear, dire wolf, and American lion.

American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)
American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)

Details and dimensions (size)

The American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)

  • Dated: 1.8m – 11,000 years ago (the Pleistocene)
  • Main areas of occurrence: North and South America
  • Body length without the tail: 160 – 250 cm (5ft 3in – 8ft 2in)
  • Height at shoulders: 120 cm (3.94 ft)
  • Weight: 250 – 350 kg (551 – 771 lb)

Previously it was thought, the American Lion weighed more. Boris Sorkin in “A biomechanical constraint on body mass in terrestrial mammalian predators” (2008) estimated its weight at 420 kg (930 lb). Today, however, it is believed that it was lighter.

Cave lion and American lion – interesting facts

  • The Latin term spelaea means ”cave”, and atrox can be translated as “cruel” or “dreadful”.
  • On the basis of the found vessels dating from the Pleistocene, it has been shown that the cave lion was associated with beliefs of people of that time.
  • The oldest fossils of the species Panthera are dated from 3-4m years ago, and they were found in Tanzania.
American lion (Panthera leo atrox / Panthera atrox)
From the right side: American lion (Panthera leo atrox) and Eurasian cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea) – a comparison with modern big cats.


Dinosaur Database


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