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Cougars' diverse diet helped species during ice age

New research sheds light on cougars' feeding habits

researcher working on fossils in a lab
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Cougars may have survived the ice age because of diverse diet.
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April 24, 2014

Cougars may have survived mass extinction 12,000 years ago by not being picky about what they ate. A National Science Foundation-funded research team from Vanderbilt University and the University of Wyoming discovered that cougars had a more diverse diet and often killed and fully consumed their prey, more so than the large American lions and saber-tooth cats that went extinct during the Pleistocene period.

Studying 50 fossil teeth of modern cougars, the team compared them with their more finicky cousins--the saber-tooth cats and American lions, excavated from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. They then compared these teeth with specimens of modern hyenas, cheetahs and African lions. 

Utilizing a new technique called dental microwear texture analysis, the team found significantly greater variation among individual cougars than the other large cats that went extinct. Some were finicky eaters like cheetahs. Others had wear patterns closer to modern hyenas, consuming almost the entire body of their prey, bones included. The team says this suggests that the Pleistocene cougars had a more generalized dietary behavior. 

While six species of large cats roamed North America during the ice age, only the cougar and the jaguar survived.

--  Dena Headlee, (703) 292-7739 dheadlee@nsf.gov

Larisa Grawe DeSantis

Related Institutions/Organizations
Vanderbilt University

Related Awards
#1053839 Early Career: Acquisition of a White Light Confocal Microscope for Dental Microwear Texture Analysis of Ancient Mammalian Communities

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