By Dr. Becker
Around 12,000 years ago, during an event called the Late Pleistocene extinction, many species of North American animals began to die off. Ultimately, four of the six types of American big cats disappeared, including the saber-tooth cat and the American lion. In the end, only cougars and jaguars remained.
New research now suggests it just might have been the diets of these cats that made the difference between survival and extinction.
Researchers Examine Wear Marks on Teeth to Determine Dietary Habits
The goal of the study, which was conducted by Larisa DeSantis, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, and Ryan Haupt of the University of Wyoming, was to determine if dietary factors contributed to the cougar’s survival.1
DeSantis and Haupt analyzed the microscopic wear marks on the fossilized teeth of cougars as compared to saber-tooth cats and American lions. For context, they also examined the teeth marks of modern day carnivores with identified diets, including cheetahs, lions, and hyenas. The researchers used a new investigative method called dental microwear texture analysis, or DMTA, which produces an image of the surface of a tooth in three dimensions. The image can then be analyzed for microscopic wear patterns.
As it turns out, the teeth of modern carnivores contain telltale marks that indicate the type of food they consumed during their last weeks of life. For example, red meat leaves small parallel scratches on teeth, while bones leave larger, deeper grooves.
The Verdict? Feline Garbage Disposals Out-Survive Their Pickier Cousins
The researchers analyzed the teeth of 50 fossil and modern cougars and compared them with the teeth of saber-tooth cats and American lions, as well as modern day cheetahs, lions and hyenas. In prior studies, DeSantis determined that the dental wear marks of the extinct American lions were very similar to those of modern cheetahs, who happen to be very picky eaters. Their preference is for tender meat and they rarely dine on bones.
When the researchers looked at the fossil teeth of cougars, they found a wide variety of wear marks, which is unusual among big cats. Some showed the wear patterns of finicky eaters, but others pointed to a similarity with the dining habits of hyenas, who eat almost the entire body of their prey, including the bones.
The researchers believe these observations suggest that Pleistocene cougars had broader dietary habits than the extinct cats. “Specifically, they likely killed and often fully consumed their prey, more so than the large cats that went extinct,” according to DeSantis. This finding matches up with the eating habits and dental wear patterns of modern day cougars, who are opportunistic predators and scavengers of dead meat left behind by other animals. They consume the entire carcass of small and medium-sized prey.
Finicky to Extinction
During times of food scarcity, it appears more finicky wild cats like the saber-tooth and American lion stayed picky to the end of their lives, refusing to eat certain body parts of prey animals even when they were starving.
Cougars, on the other hand, while not out hunting big game like bison or baby mammoths, were highly skilled at breaking down carcasses and making nutritional use of nearly every morsel. This is likely how they carried on during both feast and famine, out-surviving other cats with more limited appetites.