Ancient Ancestors: Mountain Lions

The ancestors of modern-day mountain lions (Puma concolor) diverged from the saber-tooth cats (such as Smilodon) about 20 million years ago.

Where do our wild neighbors come from? We know mountain lions existed in North America long before humans did, but what brought them to this continent? Does studying the fossil record inform us about how mountain lions might continue to evolve into the future?

The ancestral family tree of cats is murky in some spots, but genetic evidence suggests that all living cat species descended from a single ancestor. A medium-sized catlike predator called Pseudaelurus lived in Eurasia from 20 – 9 Ma (million years ago) and gave rise to the cat family Felidae, which contains all cats. From this lineage the roaring “big cats” of subfamily Pantherinae diverged from the rest of the felids (subfamily Felinae) 11.5 Ma.

From 10 – 8 Ma an ice age froze a stretch of water that separated Asia and North America, forming the Bering Strait land bridge. This brought the mountain lion’s ancestor (which it shares with the cheetah and jaguarundi) to North America, where the current species, Puma concolor, evolved at least 300,000 years ago. This was a big shock to native North American animals of the time period; they had yet to meet one of the most specialized and successful carnivores to ever exist!

Mountain lions flourished in North America and eventually spread to South America, adapting to a wide variety of environments along the way. The species and its ancestors have survived major changes in climate, ecosystem structure, and biodiversity, but Puma concolor is currently up against its toughest challenge yet — us. The mountain lion is experiencing a rebound after nearly being wiped out entirely from North America, but recovering populations won’t be safe until proper protections are put in place across the United States, Nevada included.

 

Aaron Huelsman

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