Forgotten Felines | WWF India

PREHISTORIC BIG CATS

Haven’t you always wondered where tigers came from? What the basis of their existence is? I don’t know about you, but I sure have! I mean, yeah, we evolved from chimps, dogs came from wolves, but what did our present day “kitty” evolve from? So, one day, I got up with a goal in my head – I had to figure this out! And that’s how this article came into existence. Forgotten felines are all the cats that have been forgotten over the ages - all the prehistoric cats that evolved into our present day big cats.


© Vishnu/WWF-India

Smilodon or the saber toothed cat

Often called a tiger, this prehistoric predator was not really a tiger. Fossil evidence indicates that it was a lot smaller, more like a bobcat — around 3 feet tall, to be precise. A distinct feature seen in this peculiar feline was its fangs. This cat had huge canine fangs that closely resembled sabers, as the name indicates. These extremely sharp fangs were, on an average, 8 inches long! Also known as the smilodon, the saber-toothed cat was built for the kill. Almost bearlike with an extremely muscular neck and forelegs, its well-engineered body was perfect for latching onto the necks of its unfortunate prey. Its mouth opened very wide and it could bite huge chunks out of a prey. Clusters of fossils found in California suggest that it may have been a social animal.

American Lion or Panthera atrox

This big cat, a probable ancestor of our present-day lion, once roamed the continent of North America. This predator was huge, more than four-thirds the size of any modern lion. Standing 4 feet high, this predator had a huge head and long legs. Surprisingly, this big cat weighed less than expected, for something its size — between 256kg and 351kg. Also called the American lion, this predator lived at high altitudes, probably using caves as shelter against the cold weather. American lions likely preyed on deer, horses, North American camels, North American tapirs, bison, mammoths, and other large herbivorous animals. Human predation may have contributed to its extinction, indicated by the huge number of lion bones found in American Indian settlements of the Paleolithic age. This prehistoric lion was truly the king of beasts in its age.

© Vishnu/WWF-India
© Vishnu/WWF-India

Dinictis

The dinictis was a strong and fierce predator indigenous to North America. Fossil evidence suggests that this beast was a strange mixture of the prehistoric smilodon and present-day felines like the house cat and tiger.

It had a sleek body, almost 1.1 m long, with very short, un-catlike front legs. It looked like a small leopard, roughly the size of the present-day cougar and dwelled in trees. Its teeth were like modern cats and it is considered an ancestor to them. Fossils found in the western states of North America show that the dinictis preferred to live and hunt near rivers and open plains.

Homotherium

Also known as the Scimitar cat, the homotherium was one of the most formidable felines in prehistoric times. Found in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa, it adapted very well to different climatic conditions and survived for five million years until its extinction. The homotherium may have been a social carnivore and was active mostly during the day, thus avoiding competition with nocturnal predators. Its short hind legs and rather long forelegs helped it in grabbing prey. An adept mammal hunter, its exceptional speed helped the homotherium hunt fast animals as well.

© Vishnu/WWF-India
© Vishnu/WWF-India

Cave Lion

The cave lion was a subspecies of the Panthera leo . This skilled hunter was one of the largest cats of its time (much larger than our present-day Siberian tiger and hybrid tiger) with the males weighing between 270kg and 320 kg. It was one of the most dangerous and powerful predators during the last Ice Age in Europe, and evidence indicates that it was feared. Interestingly it played a role in paleolithic religious beliefs evident from artefacts like cave paintings and a few statuettes that depicted the cave lion as a majestic, regal beast. Surprisingly, this cat did not have a mane like the present-day lion as indicated by paleolithic cave paintings and clay busts. They also show the cave lion with faint, tiger-like stripes on its body. Scientists have suggested that it may actually have been more related to the tiger. Extensive genetic studies on the fossils, however, have confirmed that the cave lion was actually a lion!

The story has been reproduced from WWF PANDA magazine.

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