The African lion is the largest kitty that exists on the planet today, but less than 12,000 years ago there was an even larger cat that dominated North America. We are all familiar with Smilodon (a.k.a. the Sabertooth-Tiger) and what a perfect hunter it was. The American lion was larger, and more powerful in almost every aspect. Smilodon had these iconic 12 inch saber teeth that was originally thought to have been used for basically stabbing its victims over and over resulting puncturing organs and massive blood loss. What we have discovered is that the skull of this animal would not have been able to withstand the impact of the bones of its prey against the teeth. If Smilodon leaped through the air and used its head like spear to kill its prey it would have most certainly would have broken its saber teeth and rattled its brain if it connected with a large mammals backbone. By hunting in packs it would have used the same strategy as modern day pride hunting cats and used their combined efforts to bring a large mammal down and then when they had the opportunity, they would sink their large saber teeth into the soft tissue of the neck of its victims, this time resulting in massive blood loss and suffocation.
The American lion on the other hand had a skull and teeth designed for impact and ripping through flesh. The teeth of the American lion range from 2 inches to 4 inches in length but are thick and solidly supported at the root. This means this lion could open and close its mouth on its prey and rip through flesh with ease. It was the most powerful and largest predatory cat that we have record of.
I recently had the privilege of of seeing the skeleton of this large cat at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles California. I highly recommend this museum to anyone who has the opportunity to go. The tar pits has one of the largest collections of prehistoric mammals in the world. From wolly mammoths to giant sloths and dire wolves. Being next to the skeleton of an American lion is humbling. It really makes you realize the difficulty of surviving in prehistoric north america.
Imagine a lion 25% larger than today's African lions and with twice the power! Its part of a species named Panthera atrox, which means "crule" or "fearsome panther" in Latin. The head-body length of the American lion is estimated to have been 1.6–2.5 m (5 ft 3 in–8 ft 2 in) and it would have stood 1.2 m (3.9 ft) at the shoulder. Around 100 specimens of the American lion have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, so their body structure is well known. The features and teeth of this extinct lion strongly resemble those of modern lions, but they were considerably larger, and are believed to be the largest subspecies of lion.
Whats really terrifying is that the bones of this cat have been found next to several others. This giant killer hunted alongside anywhere from 3-10 in its pride. Its remains have been found along side skeletons of wolly mammoths and bison that were twice the size of today representatives of the species.
An interesting fact is that the these large cats disappeared around the same time as other megafaunal species during the Quaternary extinction event, which wiped out many of the species on which the American lion would have preyed. Lion bones have been found in the trash heaps of Paleolithic American Indians, suggesting human predation may have contributed to its extinction.
In closing, take a look at your cute little house cat and picture a time where its ancestors towered over any human when up on two legs and could bring you down with very little effort. The American cave lion is one of the greatest Cenozoic discoveries of predatory animals in this century!