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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.


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)

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