Ice Age Predators in Prehistoric North America
Prehistoric North America was rife with ferocious predators. It might surprise some people to know that many of the most incredible beasts lived not all that long ago. They were formidable hunters that thrived during the Pleistocene Epoch (~2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago), the age of megafauna in North America.
It was a time when mammoths, giant ground sloths, giant beavers, and huge stag-moose roamed the land. To survive in this challenging landscape, a hunter needed the size, power, and ferocity to overcome such massive prey.
So how do we know about these creatures? One of the greatest resources is the La Brea Tar Pits, located in Los Angeles, California. While modern-day Los Angeles may seem like an unlikely place to collect information about prehistoric predators, the Tar Pits have provided a massive wealth of knowledge regarding Ice-Age animals.
A natural trap, many creatures met their end by getting stuck in the asphalt of the Tar Pits. When a carnivore came to feed on the trapped animals, they also became stuck. After tens of thousands of years, the La Brea Tar Pits have accumulated many specimens dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch.
Thanks to sites like La Brea we have a window to the past and can learn a great deal about many of the animals that lived in prehistoric times. Unfortunately, the reason these animals are no longer around today is a little less clear. The Pleistocene ended about 11,700 years ago with the close of the most recent Ice Age. As the glaciers retreated, the giant mammals began to die off.
While some of their relatives can still be found in North and South America and other locations around the globe, none of these amazing prehistoric predators survive in the modern-day.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the following five ferocious predators of the North American Ice Age:
Top 5 Ice Age Predators of Prehistoric North America
- The Saber-Toothed Cat (Smilodon Fatalis)
- American Lion (Panthera Leo Atrox)
- The Giant Short-Faced Bear (Arctodus Simus)
- Dire Wolf (Canis Dirus)
- The American Cheetah (Miracinonyx)
1. The Saber-Toothed Cat (Smilodon Fatalis)
The saber-toothed cat is perhaps the most widely known prehistoric North American predator. This is Smilodon fatalis, a hunter with a pair of 7-inch dagger-like upper canine teeth. Large male specimens would have weighed over 600 pounds. To put this in perspective, adult male African lions average around 400 pounds.
Smilodon was an effective hunter, taking down ancient bison, deer, and camels, among other moderate-size herbivores. Despite artist renditions of saber-toothed cats jumping on the backs of giant mammoths, this was probably unrealistic. Just as modern African lions wouldn’t tackle a healthy, adult elephant, it is more likely Smilodon would have preferred to prey on juvenile mammoths.
But questions remain about exactly how Smilodon went about making kills. While those canine teeth appear ferocious, they were undoubtedly susceptible to breakage. Experts theorize Smilodon would have been an ambush predator, leaping on unsuspecting prey, restraining it with powerful claws and forelimbs, then using its huge teeth to inflict the fatal bite or slash.
2. American Lion (Panthera Leo Atrox)
There were once lions in North America, and we’re not talking about mountain lions. The American lion (Panthera leo atrox) was much bigger than modern African lions, and some individuals would have approached 800 pounds. Next to the short-faced bear, this was the biggest and baddest of prehistoric North American predators.
In contrast to Smilodon, which likely hunted in dense, wooded areas, the American lion would have stalked the plains and grasslands similarly to modern African lions. However, unlike modern lions, the American lion may have been a solitary predator. It also may have relied on caves and rock formations for use as dens.
Prehistoric herbivores such as bison, horses, and camels would have been prey for the American lion. Due to its tremendous size and power, it would have been a formidable hunter.
3. The Giant Short-Faced Bear (Arctodus Simus)
When it comes to sheer size, the short-faced bear (Arctodus simus) is among the most terrifying beasts ever to walk the North American continent. During its time, it had no rivals and would have dominated other apex predators of the Pleistocene. On all fours, it would have stood eye-to-eye with a six-foot man, while on its hind legs it may have towered twelve feet.
The short-faced bear wasn’t just bigger than modern-day brown bears—it was faster. With proportionately long legs, this bear was a runner, and all but the fastest of its prey wouldn’t have stood a chance.
While the short-faced bear was built to hunt, it was probably an omnivore and an opportunist like modern brown bears. It would have browsed for berries, insects, and plant matter and stolen kills from smaller predators. Of course, it was also a killer, well capable of taking down giant ground sloths, juvenile mammoths, and prehistoric bison.
4. Dire Wolf (Canis Dirus)
The dire wolf has become well-known in modern culture thanks to certain epic fantasy novels and their corresponding TV series. However, this Pleistocene carnivore was no fantasy. The dire wolf really did once thrive in North America. It was a ferocious hunter and the largest wolf ever to appear on our planet.
Though no taller than a modern gray wolf, the dire wolf was significantly heavier with a more robust build. This is evidenced by the thicker bone structure found in dire wolf fossils, and some experts estimate it may have outweighed modern gray wolves by 50 pounds.
Despite its formidable size, evidence suggests the dire wolf was a pack hunter like most modern wolves. This may have meant it was capable of tackling larger prey than any other predator of its day.
While the dire wolf shares many characteristics of the modern gray wolf, it has been theorized that they likely evolved completely independently from one another. The gray wolf’s ancestry (including coyotes and dholes) evolved in Eurasia, while the dire wolf likely has a purely New World origin.
5. The American Cheetah (Miracinonyx)
Of all the predators that stalked North America during the last Ice Age, the American Cheetah (Miracinonyx) is probably the least-known but possibly the most interesting. While of a separate genus, it was similar in build to modern cheetahs in Africa but much larger, with some individuals topping 200 pounds. Evidence suggests the American Cheetah may have employed similar hunting tactics as its extant African namesake, relying on similar speed.
While the American cheetah is no longer around, according to some experts, we only need to look at a living North American animal called the pronghorn to see the legacy Miracinonyx left behind. The deer-like pronghorn is the second-fastest land animal in the world and can reach speeds of nearly 60 miles per hour. Its modern predators include the mountain lion, coyote, and bobcat, none of which are capable of matching speed with the pronghorn. So how did the pronghorn get so fast?
One theory suggests the ancient American cheetah may be the answer. During prehistoric times the pronghorn evolved its tremendous speed to stay a step ahead of the cheetah, and the trait has stayed with it over the last 10,000 years.
Human (Homo Sapiens): The Ultimate Prehistoric Predator
Sadly, all of the amazing hunters listed in this article are extinct. But, there is another powerful prehistoric North American predator that still survives to this day. To get a good look at one, you only need to go to the nearest mirror.
It’s us: Homo sapiens!
Paleolithic humans were a force to be reckoned with, and when they entered North America via the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age, the continent was forever changed. They may have lacked the size and power of the short-faced bear, the massive teeth of Smilodon, and the tremendous speed of the American cheetah, but they made up for it with a brain unlike anything ever seen before on this planet.
At the end of the Pleistocene, the large megafauna of North America began to die off, and the huge predators soon followed. The true reason amazing animals like Smilodon, the dire wolf, the American lion, the short-faced bear, and the American cheetah vanished is a matter of debate. Why did they go extinct while the gray wolf, brown bear, and cougar still survive today?
Altered habitats brought on by climate change probably had much to do with it. However, prehistoric humans’ competition may have also played a large part. As much as we might wish these creatures were still around today, the hunting efficiency of ancient humans may be part of the reason they are gone.
Perhaps the introduction of humans tipped the scales too far out of favor for large, specialist carnivores. These prehistoric predators of ice-age North America were impressive, but their time on this Earth had to come to an end.
Saber-Toothed Cat Documentary
References and Further Reading
- La Brea Tar Pits History | La Brea Tar Pits
Located in the heart of L.A., La Brea Tar Pits are one of the world’s most famous fossil localities, where more than 100 excavations have been made! It’s a fascinating piece of land.
- Ice Age Animals | Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
Ice age Beringia was home to a diverse, and yet unique, mix of strange and familiar animals. During the cold glacial times, icons like the woolly mammoth, steppe bison and scimitar cat roamed the treeless plains.
- Ice Age Animals – Bering Land Bridge National Preserve |U.S. National Park Service
During the last Ice Age, the oceans were 300 ft (91 m) lower than today. The floor of the Bering Sea became a bridge of dry land connecting Russia with Alaska. The climate of this land bridge was extremely dry and windy, so snow could not accumulate.
- Pleistocene Epoch – Pleistocene fauna and flora | Britannica
The plants and animals of the Pleistocene are, in many ways, similar to those living today, but important differences exist. Moreover, the spatial distribution of various Pleistocene fauna and flora types differed markedly from what it is presently.
- Dire wolves were the last of an ancient New World canid lineage | Nature
Dire wolves are considered to be one of the most common and widespread large carnivores in Pleistocene America. Our results indicate that although they were similar morphologically to the extant grey wolf, dire wolves were a highly divergent lineage.
- Are Humans to Blame for the Disappearance of Earth’s Fantastic Beasts? | Smithsonian Magazine
100,000 years ago, giant sloths, wombats and cave hyenas roamed the world. What drove them all extinct?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
cryptid (author) from USA on October 22, 2015:
Buildreps from Europe on October 21, 2015:
Very nice article. I really enjoyed it. Thanks!