- Species of large felines have experienced decline and extinction over a vast period of time extending from the Pleistocene Era to the present.
- Nine species are currently on the Endangered list.
- Seven species including the Amur leopard, the Asiatic cheetah, and the Sumatran tiger, are on the Critically Endangered list.
Cats are members of the Felidae family of mammals ranging from huge predators to small docile house pets. Big predator cats are one of the most revered and the most hunted animals on the planet – an odd paradox. In one form or another, they’ve lived for millions of years alongside humans, but we’ve lost many species in that time. Although the list could be much longer, here are 7 extinct big cats.
1. Eastern Cougar (Puma concolor couguar)
Cougars are the fourth largest cat species in the world. An eastern cougar reached 2 – 2.5 feet tall and 7.5 feet long. It had a pale brown coat with a lighter belly and mouth and preyed on white-tailed deer, beavers, and even porcupines!
They were declared extinct on the 22nd of January, 2018, but some experts believe they had actually been extinct since the 1930’s. However, there is some considerable debate on whether eastern cougars are actually extinct. There are multiple sightings every year, but big cat experts believe these are actually roaming western cougars colonizing the east or even escaped captives.
The eastern cougar was most likely overhunted and unable to produce enough young to save itself from extinction.
2. Saber-Toothed Tiger (Smilodon)
Saber-toothed tigers went extinct around 11,000 – 8,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Saber-tooth cats were named for their huge teeth that measured 7 inches long. Because these teeth were so large, they had a much wider jaw span than today’s big cats.
There were three subspecies of saber-tooth tigers. Smilodon gracalis, Smilodon populator, and Smilodon fatalis. They all populated a wide area including Africa, Eurasia and North America.
They died out at the end of the Ice Age most likely due to the changing climate and lack of suitable prey. It’s possible humans hunted them for their skins and to eliminate competition for food too.
3. Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea)
Some of the largest felines to roam the planet were Cave lions, but they became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age about the same time as saber-toothed tigers.
Paleontologists think they were much bigger than 400-pound African lions and topped the scales at around 800 pounds. Fossilized cave lion remains measure up to 11.5 feet in length and show they stood 5 feet tall at the shoulder!
Interestingly, they are called cave lions, not because that’s where they lived, but because there are so many ancient cave paintings of them. These paintings show cave lions were greyish brown, had a pointy muzzle, and no mane.
Cave lions most likely hunted mastodons and giant deer on open grasslands and forests using their paws that had 20 claws each and their large mouths filled with 5-inch-long teeth. Experts think cave lions had more powerful jaws than modern big cats, even estimating a bite force of 1,800 pounds – that’s double the bite force of a modern lion.
4. Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica)
Coming back to modern extinct big cats we have the Javan tiger. This beautiful feline was a subspecies endemic to Java in Indonesia but it went extinct in 1979 due to habitat loss and over-hunting for its skin.
These large cats had a dense, dark orange coat with up to 100 brown-black stripes. They were smaller than other Asian tiger subspecies at only 98 inches (248 cm) long and up to 331 pounds (141 kg), but this was still large and powerful enough to hunt Javan rusa, banteng, and wild boar.
Although they used to cover nearly all of Java, their habitat had shrunk to the mountains and forests by 1940. 30 years later they were only seen in the very highest southeastern mountains. However, no Javan tigers have been seen since 1976.
5. Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo)
They ranged in color from dark brown to light tan and the males were bigger than the females. Preserved Barbary lions measure up to 9 feet, 2 inches and up to 650 pounds, about the same size as today’s Bengal tigers.
These impressive lions lived in forests, scrubland, and woodlands hunting Barbary stags, gazelles, and other small mammals like wild boar. As humans cleared wild spaces to make room for agriculture the lions’ habitats and prey opportunities shrunk. This brought them into contact with humans. When lions preyed on livestock, bounties were offered. This led to their extinction by 1960.
Ancient images portray what historians believe are Barbary lions in the Roman colosseum. What a sad end for a once venerated big cat.
6. Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica)
The males weighed up to 220 pounds and were 91 inches (230 cm) long. Like the Javan tiger, they had dark orange fur with numerous black stripes. They hunted Javan rusa, wild boar, and small mammals in mangrove swamps, savannas, and dunes. They hunted using stealth before bringing their prey down with their long sharp claws.
The native Balinese believed the Bali tiger’s body parts were magical, so they were hunted for their whiskers, teeth and bones. As humans cleared the forests and swamps for rice fields, the Bali tiger was pushed out. Intensive hunting for their pelts most likely finished off the last of the population, and the final few were officially recorded in 1930.
7. American Cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani)
American cheetahs were a species of cat that went extinct in the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. Paleontologists think they were similar to our snow leopards but had slimmer, cheetah-like proportions to prey on fast antelope and mountain goats.
They lived in North America in the Pleistocene epoch and their bones have been found from West Virginia to Arizona and all the way to Wyoming. This fast big cat became extinct along with other megafauna most likely due to climate change as the ice sheets melted. This led to a lack of suitable prey. Early humans may have hunted them as well.
Some experts think pronghorn antelopes can run so much faster than any of their current predators because they were hunted by American cheetahs thousands of years ago. It’s a hot topic though, and no one knows for sure. If it’s correct, then the American cheetah would have reached a speed of at least 65 mph (104 kph) in order to catch the pronghorns.
Big Cats at Risk Today
Extinct big cats are a stark reminder that most of our current big cats are under threat of extinction. There are seven big cats currently on the critically endangered list, including the West African lion, Sumatran tiger, Amur leopard, and the Asiatic cheetah. There are another 9 species of big cats on the endangered list.
The biggest problems for these big cats are habitat destruction and hunting. Government protections and scientists are working to help protect the final few individuals on the critically endangered list in an attempt to stop them from going extinct too. Let’s hope it’s not too late for these magnificent animals and that we will not have to add any more extinct big cats to the list.
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