We knew they roamed in Los Angeles as the La Brea tar pits prove. But they were also in Mississippi as a fossil proved. Now we know they were here and maybe killed drinking out of the Mississippi River as that was where it was found.
Historically low water levels on the Mississippi River are being credited with exposing one of the rarest Ice Age fossils ever found east of the river: the jaw of a monstrous American lion. Wiley Prewitt of Oxford, Mississippi, says he was poking around a recently exposed sandbar Oct. 26 near Rosedale — roughly 140 miles northwest of Jackson — when he saw something with black teeth in the gravel. “I could tell from the teeth right away that it was a fragment of a carnivore’s jaw but I dared not hope it was from an American lion,” he told McClatchy News. “It certainly looked right but I wouldn’t let myself believe it.” American lions were the largest big cat on the continent — until they went extinct 11,000 years ago, according to the National Park Service. They were 8 feet long, 4 feet tall and could weigh 1,000 pounds, the NPS reports, making them a few hundred pounds heavier than the better known saber-toothed tiger. Fossil evidence of the lions is rare in the eastern U.S., with only three known examples in Mississippi. Prewitt’s find counts as a fourth. And it came to light in the most surprising of ways: He walked unannounced into a Mississippi Fossil and Artifact Symposium & Exhibition event on Oct. 29 and asked for an expert opinion.nola.com
By happenstance, the exhibit had examples of the American Lion.
The symposium also just happened to have an exhibit of the previously found American Lion fossils. Event organizer Anna Reginelli says Prewitt “made history” by showing up with a “definitive American lion fossil.” “I have had very important artifacts and fossils come into my outreach programs and events, but nothing as significant as the newly discovered American lion fossil,” she told McClatchy News. “The extinct American Lion was first discovered in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1830s. No one knew that giant lions roamed North America until this famous Mississippi discovery,” she says. “The two only other definitive American Lion fossils were discovered on the Mississippi River near Clarksdale, Mississippi and Rosedale, Mississippi.” American lions (Panthera atrox) date back 340,000 years and preyed on large animals across the continent from Alaska to southern Mexico, experts say. Skeletons of the species have been found in southern California’s La Brea tar pits, but the “eastern form” of the big cats remains elusive and “poorly known,” according to George Phillips, curator of paleontology at Mississippi’s Museum of Natural Science. Phillips was there when Prewitt brought in the fossil, calling it “one of those true moments where you blink a couple of times because you can’t believe your eyes.” “That different subspecies (of American lions) may have existed can only be known by finding more fossils — and we have so very, very few in the east,” he said.
Now the fossil has to be checked and the question is where.
James Starnes, a geologist with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, calls the newly found fossil “the biggest of deals in the Paleontological world.” He is hoping it will eventually end up in a museum or lab collection for “proper scientific study.” Prewitt hasn’t yet revealed a plan for the fossil. “This eastern population may very well be different than the western ones. We will only know more with new specimens like this to study,” Starnes told McClatchy News. “This fossil is so rare, that any information learned from it will help us understand so much more about this animal, not just as a species and but about its role in the Mississippi River alluvial plain habitat during the Pleistocene.”
The more we learn the more amazement we have.