Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Extinct American Lion (Panthera atrox) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

extinct American Lion (Panthera atrox)

How Do We Know This?

Like living animals, fossil remains of once-living animals are classified and grouped according to their relationships to each other and to their ancestors.

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Extinct Pleistocene lions from North America may be genetically distinct enough to be a separate species (Panthera atrox), or they may instead be a subspecies of the modern lion, Panthera leo (Panthera leo atrox). Both taxonomies are used. (Leidy 1853) (Turner 1997) (Burger et al 2004)
  • Common name: American Lion
  • Scientific Name: "Panthera" may be traced to Sanskrit for tiger, or "pundarikam" which was then altered to a Greek sounding word; "leo" means lion in Latin; "atrox' means cruel or frightful in Latin

Evolutionary History

  • Genetic studies split all living cats into eight clusters of species with lions grouped with other Panthera. (Johnson et al 2005)
    • Panthera genus
    • Ocelot lineage
    • Domestic cat lineage
    • Puma group
    • Lynx genus
    • Leopard Cat group
    • Caracal group
    • Bay Cat group
  • Earliest fossils of the Panthera genus date to 3-4 million years ago from Tanzania (Barry 1987) (Turner 1997)
  • Panthera atroxwas the North American (and northern South American) cave lion during the Pleistocene; other cave lions at the time lived in Europe and Siberia
    • These cave lion lineages were isolated from African and Asian lions since at least 600,000 years ago, according to DNA data (Burger 2004)
    • Cave lion lineages are "highly distinct" genetically from the living lion (Burger 2004)
  • The last North American lions became extinct around 13,000 calendar years ago along with mammoths and many other large mammals.
  • Panthera leo, the African lion, is the only surviving lion; of eight recognized subspecies, two are believed extinct in the wild.

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae (lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard, cougar, cheetah, lynx, caracal, domestic cat and many fossil taxa)

Genus: Panthera

Species: Panthera atrox - American lion (extinct)

Describer: Leidy 1853 for Panthera atrox. American Philosophical Society Transactions 10:319-321

Page Citations

Barry (1987)
Burger et al. (2004)
Leidy (1853)
Turner (1987, 1997)
Wozencraft (2005)

SDZWA Library Links