In ancient times, many of the living species of big cats had members in areas they are now longer found. Species such as tigers, lion, and leopards now confined to certain continents were once present in locations that today seem odd to us such as Europe or North America. Below are a few examples of ancient subspecies and ranges of big cats no longer found today.
In ancient times, most tigers ranged areas common to their modern descendants. Fossils have been found in China, Siberia, and India as are modern tigers. There were however a few that ranged outside of what we know as the normal range. Tigers used to be common in western Asia near the Caspian sea up to recorded historical times.
Tigers also used to be present in North America. Some fossils have been found in Alaska, dating as recently as 100,000 years ago. Tiger and lion fossils have however been the cause of some debate. The skeletons of the two cats are very similar, so some arguments have arose as to whether those found are actually lions or tigers. Some have even been assigned to different taxa than either lions or tigers.
Though now confined to Africa and small populations in Asia, lions were once more abundant world wide. In the Pleistocene, lions were found in Europe and North America. North American lions ranged as far south as Peru, and were larger than modern African lions. They have often been assigned the taxon Panthera atrox. North American lions probably hunted deer, now extinct horses (which also once ranged naturally in North America) and even bison. Hunting large prey such as bison may not have been as much of a challenge for North American lions based on their larger size.
In the Pleistocene, lions were also widespread across Europe. They are know in France as early as 9 MYA (based on specimens found at a site called Vallonnet), and are found in Greece, Germany, and Poland. Like those of North America, these 'cave lions' (as they are often referred to) were larger than their African descendants. They probably hunted large deer, horses, and wild bovines.
Lions were also more widespread in Asia during the Pleistocene, being found in Arabia, Iran, and larger populations in India. All that remains of these lions today are small populations in India of the subspecies Panthera leo persica. (visit the links section to go to a site with more information on this subspecies)
Little evidence exists of leopards in Europe. Small amounts of fossils have been found in Italy at a site called Equi and in France at Vallonnet. These leopards were in within the size range of modern leopards, although at the larger end.
Jaguars first appear in the fossil record around 1.5 MYA. Now confined to Central and South America, Pleistocene jaguars were found as far north as Washington state and Nebraska. These jaguars were of similar size to modern ones, and probably hunted similar prey such as capybara, tapirs, peccaries, turtles, alligators and fish.
A cat referred to as the 'European jaguar' was also present around 1.6 MYA. It has been assigned the taxon Panthera gombaszoegensis. Fossils from the Olivola site in Italy. Later specimens have been found in England, Germany, Spain, and France. European jaguars were larger than those found in North America, and were therefore probably capable of bringing down larger prey.
sources: "The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives" Alan Turner. Columbia University Press, New York. 1997
Although it is commonly believed that these cats are now either extinct or no longer living in these regions, there might still be a remote possibility that the ancestors of some may still exist. Sightings of jaguars in North American states such as Texas and Florida, or of panther/leopard like cats in Europe have been reported. While these may be escaped animals or simply imagination of individuals, it is nice to suspect that there may be still populations of elusive large cats living in these areas. A certain amount of credibility is lent to these sightings based on their elusive nature alone. It is known that South American jaguars are extremely difficult to study due to a combination of their habits and small populations. I like to believe that this is the case in other regions; that extremely small populations may exist that are rarely seen and therefore virtually unknown.
BACK TO EXTINCT SPECIES