American Lion (Panthera Leo Atrox)

Prehistoric Mammals

Skeleton of American lion (Panthera leo atrox) in museum

daryl_mitchell/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0


American Lion; also known as Panthera leo atrox


Plains of North America

Historical Period:

Pleistocene-Modern (two million-10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

Up to 13 feet long and 1,000 pounds



Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; lithe build; thick coat of fur

About the American Lion (Panthera leo atrox)

Contrary to popular belief, the saber-toothed tiger (more accurately referred to by its genus name, Smilodon) wasn't the only feline apex predator of Pleistocene North America: there was also the American Lion, Panthera leo atrox. If this plus-sized cat was, in fact, a true lion—some paleontologists speculate that it may have been a species of jaguar or tiger—it was the largest of its kind that ever lived, outweighing its contemporary African relatives by hundreds of pounds. Even still, the American lion was no match for Smilodon, a more heavily built predator (only distantly related to the Panthera genus) that employed an entirely different hunting style.

On the other hand, the American lion may have been smarter than Smilodon; before the advent of human civilization, thousands of saber-toothed tigers became mired in the La Brea Tar Pits in search of prey, but only a few dozen individuals of Panthera leo atrox met such a fate. Intelligence would have been a valuable trait in the competitive landscape of Pleistocene North America, where the American lion had to out-hunt not only Smilodon but also the dire wolf (Canis dirus) and the giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), among other megafauna mammals. Unfortunately, by the end of the last Ice Age, all of these vicious carnivores occupied the same dismal playing field, hunted to extinction by early humans at the same time as climate change and a reduction in their usual prey thinned out their populations.

How was the American lion related to another famous big cat of Pleistocene North America, the cave lion? According to a recent analysis of mitochondrial DNA (which is passed on only by females, thus allowing for detailed genealogical studies), the American lion diverged from an isolated family of cave lions, cut off from the rest of the population by glacial activity, about 340,000 years ago. From that point on, the American lion and the cave lion coexisted in different North American territories, pursuing different hunting strategies.

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Strauss, Bob. "American Lion (Panthera Leo Atrox)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 28). American Lion (Panthera Leo Atrox). Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "American Lion (Panthera Leo Atrox)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).