Fossil hunters’ interest in recently exposed sandbars along the drought-stricken Mississippi River resulted in two extraordinary discoveries of a rare ice period species.
On October 26, Wiley Prewitt was exploring a recently exposed area when he discovered a very huge tooth sticking out of the sand. The inhabitant of Oxford, Mississippi, would soon discover that it was a fossilised jawbone from a large American lion, a species that has been extinct for approximately 11,000 years, as reported by CNN.
“I realised right away that it was a fossilised carnivore because of the morphology of the teeth, but I obviously had no idea that it was (an American) lion. We all are aware of them, but you never think you’ll actually locate one,” according to Prewitt. “I just found it hard to believe. It was winning the lottery for fossils. ”
According to the National Park Service, the American lion was the largest extinct cat to have lived in North America during the last ice age. The species was 25% bigger than a modern African lion, standing at 4 feet tall at the shoulders and measuring 5 to 8 feet in length. Its scientific name, Panthera atrox, means “fearsome panther” in Latin.
The park service reports that American lions typically averaged 500 to 800 pounds, while some of the largest individuals may have exceeded 1,000 pounds.
The Mississippi Fossil and Artifact Symposium & Exhibition held an event displaying previously discovered American lion fossils three days following Prewitt’s discovery. Prewitt took the fossil in the hopes that experts would be able to identify it, but he had no idea how important his discovery would be in helping us learn more about Mississippi’s past.
Exceedingly rare fossil
“When (Prewitt) whipped out that anterior portion of a lion jaw, I knew right away what it was,” remarked George Phillips, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science’s curator of palaeontology, who attended the occasion. “Who would have imagined in a million years that another lion fossil would appear at an event with the American lion as the topic, given how uncommon they are? ”
Even though the fossilised jawbone was incomplete, Phillips noted that enough was still there to clearly identify the specimen: It had a wide gap between the canine and the premolar teeth, which could only be found in American lions.
Phillips claimed that it was simple to exclude the other carnivore options and establish that he was looking at another fossil from the lion after seeing other fossils from the same species at the exhibition.
One week after that unexpected find, a local wildlife officer removed a sizable American lion femur from the river sediment, adding another specimen of the endangered animal to the museum’s collection, according to Phillips, who spoke to CNN.
According to Phillips, fossils of carnivores are significantly harder to come across than those of their prey equivalents. He described it as “simply an exceedingly rare fossil” and said it is astonishing that two American lion bones have been discovered in the past week or so.
A growing American lion collection
Prewitt intends to give the fossil he discovered to the Jackson museum, making it the fourth piece of American lion bone to be added to the institution’s collection (including the newly discovered femur).
“The river is remarkable since it changes from year to year. When the river rises, the rising water exposes certain objects while hiding others.” As a result, Prewitt noted, “you are constantly looking at fresh places here.” “The fossils really make you think about deep time, and I think that is really part of the wonder of it,” said the researcher.
The first American lion fossil was discovered in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1836, but it took nearly 20 years for naturalist Joseph Leidy to identify it. The specimen, a lower jawbone, belonged to a previously unidentified species, according to Leidy. It was bigger than the largest cat known at the time, the extinct European cave lion. Giant lions had never been known to prowl North America before that time.
“I think people take greater pride in an area when they realize that something like this exists — some aspect of the antiquity of the area where they live,” Phillips said. “Archaeologists try to do the same thing, to show that there were people that were here before you. Well, there are also extinct, weird-looking creatures that were here before you.”
Did you subscribe to our newsletter?
It’s free! Click here to subscribe!