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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Really Big Cats and Evening Strolls

I was in Montreat, North Carolina last week, for a 46th-year-reunion of college roommates. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains at 2600 feet, with Mount Mitchell towering at 6,684 feet to the north, Montreat abounds with summer conferences and, hence, youth enjoying the balmy evenings along with us not-so-young folks. My roommate Ashton cautioned us to be aware of black bears on our evening walks. I knew that black bears (Ursus americanus) can put a dent in your night’s slumbers if you’re camping, but they aren’t a credible threat to your life. For that, you’d have to go back a century in the Blue Ridge mountains, to the days when cougars still prowled the ridges. With the exception of a relict population in the Everglades of Florida, cougars only occur in the western U.S. these days.

Cougars do attack humans, though rarely, but if you’re alone in the evening in the mountains of the western U.S., it’s best to keep your eyes open. For serious threats to life and limb from big cats in North America, though, you’d have to go back 15,000 years, when humans first flooded onto the continent from Asia over the recently-emerged Bearing Land Bridge. Those first North American humans faced a very different assemblage of large cats: saber-toothed and scimitar-toothed cats of the old Machairodontine subfamily; “African” lions and jaguars of the Pantherine subfamily; and the closely-related cheetahs and cougars of the Feline subfamily. Six kinds of cats big enough to make a meal of you in North America, then!

Now that would make you keep your eyes open on an evening walk! In fact, that would persuade me, at least, to make sure I always had a couple of sturdy, armed buddies with me when I was sauntering about.

I think it’s highly likely that it was the big cats of these three subfamilies that predisposed humans to form groups during our evolutionary history. The big cats, worldwide, were doubtless the most potent predators of early humans—and pre-humans, for that matter. I’ve crouched in the cave at Dragon Bone Hill (Zhoukoudian) southwest of Beijing, where a quarter million years of our Homo erectus predecessors lived, and tried to imagine how dangerous it was to be a human (or proto-human) back then, with their own equally-varied array of big cats prowling around outside the cave. There’s a distinct ash-layer in the cave, indicating the importance of fire to these proto-humans to keep the big cats (and cave bears, probably) at bay.

So we humans tend to form groups, and reap all sorts of advantages thereby, the most basic of which is that we can fight off, or scare off, the big cats that have always been our most threatening predator.

So what happened to those six kinds of big cats in North America when humans arrived between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago? The saber-tooths and scimitar-tooths, the cheetahs, and the “African” lions went extinct not long after the arrival of humans. Paul Martin of Arizona State University proposed several decades ago that the incredible burgeoning wave of humans sweeping south over the continent reduced the prey populations of the big cats from over-hunting, leading to plummeting populations of the big cats themselves, and their eventual extinction. There is some supporting evidence for this “late Pleistocene overkill” hypothesis.

The demise of these four species of big cats in North America left only the cougar and the jaguar. The range of both has diminished since. The cougar has been eliminated from the eastern United States (other than the small, relict population in the Everglades) and thinned somewhat in the west. The jaguar formerly extended well into what is now Texas and the mountains of the southwestern United States, but is rare there now, and thinned out in Mexico. But the cougar still maintains relatively healthy populations from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and jaguar populations still occur in the great Amazonian forests of South America and, diminished, into Central America.

All the big cats of the Machairodontine subfamily went extinct worldwide between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago—the saber-tooths and scimitar-tooths. Scientists and conservationists generally agree, gloomily, that half the big cat species of today’s Pantherine subfamily will go extinct in the wild in the current century—the lion, the tiger, the leopard. Perhaps the jaguar, snow leopard, and clouded leopard may survive in remote wilderness. The Feline subfamily includes the many small to medium cats, and the big species of cheetah and cougar. The cheetah will join the lion and tiger in extinction this century, but the cougar may well survive.

A world without lions, tigers, and leopards seems a diminished world, to me. What a chunk of history will be lost when the lion is gone. Like the rest of the Pantherines, the “African” lion (Panthera leo) stock arose in south Asia, some 10 million years ago. As it flourished, the lion expanded west into India, and then arrived in Africa by 2 million years ago. It also expanded to the east, arriving in North America no later than 300,000 years ago, and pushing south into South America by 200,000 years ago (all dates established by fossils). So by 200,000 years ago the lion was the most widely distributed mammal in the world, out-doing humans even, and was present in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. The King of Beasts, indeed!

Naturally, the lion changed as it spread to different habitats on five continents. The version that got to North America was appreciably larger than today’s “African” lion, with a (male) body measuring a fearsome 8.5 feet long (not including the tail!). “Our” North American lion also had the largest brain of all the lions, which had to make it an even more fearsome predator of humans. In fact, some taxonomists consider our North American lion to have changed from its ancestral stock sufficiently that rather than considering it the Panthera leo atrox subspecies, they elevate it to its own species, Panthera atrox. Others disagree, and really it matters not a whit to me. It was the largest and smartest of the King of Beasts. The lion is gone from North America, though, and its scattered remaining populations in India and Africa will join it soon enough, to the world’s impoverishment.

I enjoyed walking the Blue Ridge mountain community of Montreat last week with my old college roommates. All in all, I was glad we didn’t have to worry about big cats. But a part of me is sad at that. I can handle sadness; it’s part of the human condition. But still . . .

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