Cougars’ diverse diet helped them survive extinction that killed saber-tooth, American lion

Cougars may have survived the mass extinction that took place about 12,000 years ago because they were not particular about what they ate, unlike their more finicky cousins–the saber-tooth cat and American lion. Both perished along with the woolly mammoth and many of the other supersized mammals that walked the Earth during the late Pleistocene.

That is the conclusion of a new analysis of the microscopic wear marks on the teeth of cougars, saber-tooth cats and American lions described in the April 23 issue of the journal Biology Letters.

“Before the Late Pleistocene extinction, six species of large cats roamed the plains and forests of North America. Only two – the cougar and jaguar – survived. The goal of our study was to examine the possibility that dietary factors can explain the cougar’s survival,” said Larisa R.G. DeSantis, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, who co-authored the study with Ryan Haupt at the University of Wyoming.

For their investigation, DeSantis and Haupt employed a new technique called dental microwear texture analysis. DMTA uses a confocal microscope to produce a three-dimensional image of the surface of a tooth. The image is then analyzed for microscopic wear patterns. The analysis of the teeth of modern carnivores, including hyenas, cheetahs and lions has established that the meals an animal consumes during the last few weeks of its life leave telltale marks. Chowing down on red meat, for example, produces small parallel scratches while chomping on bones adds larger, deeper pits.

The researchers analyzed the teeth of 50 fossil and modern cougars, and compared them with the teeth of saber-tooth cats and American lions excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and the teeth of modern African carnivores including cheetahs, lions and hyenas.

Previously, DeSantis and others found that the dental wear patterns of the extinct American lions closely resembled those of modern cheetahs, which are extremely finicky eaters that mostly consume tender meat and rarely gnaw on bones. Saber-tooth cats were instead similar to African lions and chewed on both flesh and bone.

Among the La Brea cougars, the researchers found significantly greater variation between individuals than they did in the other large cats, including saber-toothed cats. Some of the cougars show wear patterns similar to those of the finicky eaters but on others they found wear patterns closer to those of modern hyenas, which consume almost the entire body of their prey, bones included.

“This suggests that the Pleistocene cougars had a ‘more generalized’ dietary behavior,” DeSantis said. “Specifically, they likely killed and often fully consumed their prey, more so than the large cats that went extinct.” This is consistent with the dietary behavior and dental wear patterns of modern cougars, which are opportunistic predators and scavengers of abandoned carrion and fully consume the carcasses of small and medium-sized prey, a “variable dietary behavior that may have actually been a key to their survival.”


  1. I think this shows that Darwin’s theory on speciation has some truth in it since the other species that never survived couldn’t adapt to change and we’re weak as to then perish nod become a tail , the teeth testing is a long shot but fact remains the unfit never survived.

  2. I think the main reason why the cougars survived is because they adapted quicker to the change in climate and scarcity of natural prey. The cougar developed an advantage above all the other predators to be able to choose in a greater variety of prey. Surely there are greater factors contributing to the extinction of some predators but their main survival instinct was to find food which got scarce. Cougars evolved faster than the other predators and I think this is one of the main reasons their species survived.

  3. This was a very interesting read for me. In my opinion, with regards to what Ryan Walton has said, I also agree that there were many different factors that contributed to the extinction of Saber-tooth Cats and although the diet of Cougars helped them survive through all these years, many elements have also contributed to that.

    The ‘variable dietary behaviour that may have actually been a key to their survival’. To some extent this statement is true but is was not the only factor that leads to their survival. It is said that Cougars have a unique way of conserving their prey when killed; they bury their prey in the ground, just as leopard would pull its prey up into the trees for protection against other animals, and dig it up later on when needed. This could also be one of the ways that Cougars survived. The jaws of Saber-tooth cats were comparatively weak and did not bite down on their prey with much force to protect their precious canines against accidental breakage. This could have been one of the cofactors that led to extinction because many of them would have gone through starvation if their canines broke which is important as they are responsible for cutting and tearing flesh. A 2012 study on Smilodon (Saber-tooth cats) tooth wear was conducted where no evidence suggested that these animals were limited by food resources.

    One of the major components that contributed to the extinction of Saber-tooth cats and American lions were climate change. Climate change played very big role in this and as the years gone by Saber-tooth cats and American lions could not adapt to this climate changes and slowly died. Cougars have adapted to these climate changes and learned to survive. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection states that it’s the survival of the fittest and those that can are most adaptable to change that have succeeded.

    This reading is really fascinating to me but I do agree that there are other components and factors that led to the survival of Cougars and the extinction of Saber-tooth cats and American Lions.

  4. This was a fascinating and informative read! I have studied how the dental formula of various species varies due to their specific diets. Furthermore, due to natural selection, a certain species may evolve certain characteristics in order to survive in a tough environment. This theory, according to Charles Darwin, explains how a species slowly evolves over many generations and that only the survival of the fittest remains.

    In my opinion, this factual based blog provides clear, hard facts but I still feel that it was not only the variation in diet that lead to the survival of the cougars. Cougars are much smaller than the saber tooth tigers and American lions; thus they required less food to survive on. During the Pleistocene era, many herbivores (prey) died out too and so the cougar could withstand longer periods without certain nutrients compared to that of the larger cats.

    According to this article, cougars had different diets: What prey did they feed on compared to that of the saber tooth tiger? Can cougars store energy and fat reserves more sufficiently than that of the larger, extinct cats? I also feel, as mentioned by earlier comments, that surely the instinct of survival of the extinct cats would have kicked in and that they would have consumed foods that would have ensured their survival as they did have the specialized teeth available.

    What fascinates me about this blog is the different view on why cougars survived and not the other mentioned cats. I am pleased with the reassuring evidence provided and that it relates to Charles Darwin’s theory on natural selection. I understand that the cougars were the most adaptive to change; yet I am still convinced that there are more co-factors to this topic, or completely different factors that add to the this topic that resulted in the incredible survival of the cougars!

  5. One would have thought that the larger predators such as the saber toothed tiger would overcome its “fussiness” when food became scarce, why had its survival instinct not kicked in at that point ? As Darwin said, ” it is not the strongest or the smartest that survive but the species most adaptable to change.” Is it not unlike animals to be fussy when there is near to no choice ?

  6. This is quite an interesting and informative topic. I think the extinction of many animals has been a mystery to many and the bits and pieces of such information could probably lead scientist to an actual clue as to what may have happened for the extinction to have occurred.
    However, could the finicky behaviour not have been caused by the fact that these animals were of different types and had to eat special types of food to accommodate themselves and their way of living? As METIN GUNDUZ has stated, we cannot fully rely on such minor detail to generalize on the fact that the extinction may have occurred because of a diverse diet. many aspects may have occurred and could explain even better how the extinction came about and even why these species relied on particular diets.
    What Lené, has stated about natural selection could have played a role as well. This in particular makes more sense when integrated with the research that was conducted by the team.

  7. I think this is a classic Galapagos- island scenario. When Charles Darwin went on a 5 year boot trip, one of the places they visited was the Galapagos-islands. It is here that Darwin enunciated his theory of Natural Selection, while studying the Galapagos Birds. This theory states that Natural selection acts to preserve minor advantageous genetic mutations. These mutations appear randomly. Suppose a member of a species develops a functional advantage (the ability to eat certain food). Its offspring would inherit that advantage and pass it on to their offspring. The inferior (disadvantaged) members of the same species would gradually become extinct (in this case both the Saber-tooth cat and American lion), leaving only the superior (advantaged) members (Cougar). Natural selection is in short “the survival of the fittest”. To my meaning this is why Cougars could withstand extinction.

  8. I think this is a classic Galapagos- island scenario. When Charles Darwin went on a 5 year boot trip, one of the places they visited was the Galapagos-islands. It is here that Darwin enunciated his theory of Natural Selection, while studying the Galapagos Birds. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution – Natural Selection, states that Natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations. Suppose a member of a species developed a functional advantage (the ability to eat certain food). Its offspring would inherit that advantage and pass it on to their offspring. The inferior (disadvantaged) members of the same species would gradually die out(in this case both the Saber-tooth cat and American lion), leaving only the superior (advantaged) members of the species. Natural selection is the preservation of a functional advantage that enables a species to compete better in the wild. To my meaning this is why Cougars could withstand exstinction.

  9. Well , interesting observation but it is not the whole story ; extinctions have multifactorial etiologies , rather than –single reason- of course : Lack of Diversity (genetic variability of individual members of that species ) and especially ` inbreeding ` when the population numbers strained at the bottle neck as well as the sudden change in the environment are the `cardinal` common denominators of extinction rather than the Pickiness on the food source of that species – like choosing between bone and flesh , soft internal organs – or selective adaptation or high specialization on the particular pray animals , if they are physically capable of eating both flesh and bones –they will eat both- no matter what when they are hungry if they have the molar (crushing purpose teeth) as well canines and incisors , as far as we know they(saber tooth cats and American lions ) had the molar /crushing purpose teeth –which means they are capable of crushing the bones- there is no logical reason to think that they did NOT used their crushing teeth but only canines and incisors by only examining the wear on the teeth .. Universal strong motive(hunger) is the fundamental determining factor of what part to eat what part to reject and when to be finicky . Without evaluating the available food or scarcity of it only evaluating the teeth itself does not give the idea of whole picture of course for generation after generation . Samples of teeth examined may well represent the era during which so called – finicky- behavior is allowed due to bountiful of prey rather than time of scarcity . Environmental strains(shortage of food) also changes the behavior pattern without exception no motive is stronger than the `hunger` and `the hunger rules` and forces on the ` flexibility on available choices ` rather than – persistence on finicky behavior – .


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