60-Second Science

Dainty Diet Dictated Big-Feline Decline

Cougars survived the late Pleistocene extinction when other North American big cats became extinct,  thanks to their more flexible feeding habits. Sophie Bushwick reports

Starting about 12,000 years ago, many species of North American animals began to die out. The episode is called the late Pleistocene extinction. And it killed off four of the six kinds of American big cats. Only cougars and jaguars survived. Now researchers say the other felines’ diets may have been their doom.
The clues are found on fossil teeth. Gnawing on brittle bones, for example, leaves different marks than chewing tender meat.
So researchers compared the teeth of cougars to those of American lions and saber-toothed cats that did not make it. For context, they also analyzed the marks on the teeth of modern carnivores with known diets, including cougars, lions and hyenas. The study is in the journal Biology Letters. [Larisa R. G. DeSantis and Ryan J. Haupt, Cougars’ key to survival through the Late Pleistocene extinction: insights from dental microwear texture analysis]
During tough times, both ancient and modern cougars consumed almost all of their prey—including the bones. But the cats that went extinct stayed picky, eschewing rather than chewing some body parts even when food was scarce. So next time you’re faced with finicky eaters, tell them why there are no more saber-toothed cats.
—Sophie Bushwick
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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