A cougar at the Philadelphia Zoo.
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Photo by Brian Switek.
A cougar at the Philadelphia Zoo.

How Cougars Survived the Ice Age

Extinction can make animals seem stranger than they really are. Consider woolly mammoths. The last of these Ice Age beasts died out about 4,000 years ago, which really does seem like ancient history when compared to the span of a single life. Yet the reality is that 4,000 years is only a bare sliver of geologic time, and if mammoths had survived to the present day they probably wouldn’t seem all that unusual or out of place. After all, that’s how we treat the Ice Age survivors that continue to thrive around us.

The reasons mammoths, sabercats, short-faced bears, and other Pleistocene megafauna went extinct is a puzzle that has spawned a surge of scientific papers over the past century. Why other creatures survived through the same extinction pulse has received comparatively little attention. Coyotes, for example, loped around the La Brea asphalt seeps at the same time as Smilodon and still inhabit Hollywood. Cougars are Ice Age survivors, too. They prowled the same landscapes as sabercats and American lions, and, with a range from Canada to almost the southern tip of South America, are among the world’s most successful big cats. Why did pumas prosper while their hypercarnivorous kin slipped away?

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Cougars lived at La Brea, alongside dire wolves, Smilodon, and other Ice Age megafauna. Art by Robert Bruce Horsfall, from A History of Land Mammals in the Western Hemisphere.

Paleontologists Larisa DeSantis and Ryan Haupt think diet made all the difference.

Looking at the microscopic scratches and dents on the teeth of cougars, Smilodon, and American lions that became entombed in the muck of La Brea over 12,000 years ago, the researchers found that the wear patterns on the ancient cougar teeth most closely matched those of modern African lions. This suggests that, like lions, cougars not only ate flesh, but also gnawed bones and chewed through tougher-skinned prey that other predators ignored. The different patterns of damage of Smilodon and American lion teeth, by contrast, suggests more specialized soft tissue diets for these lost carnivores.

Much like their living representatives, Ice Age cougars caught and scavenged a variety of prey. (A dried cougar scat I saw in Argentina a few weeks ago contained armadillo armor and articulated raptor claws, along with tufts of hair from furrier meals.) This may have given cougars an edge in the long run. They may not have been slaughtering bison, camels, or baby mammoths like the other cats of their time, but cougars were experts at breaking down carcasses. This allowed them to persist through gluts and famines alike. And if paleontologists can get a clearer picture of what allowed cougars, coyotes, and other Ice Age species to survive, maybe we can better understand the weaknesses that stripped the world of the megafauna we miss so much.