Cougars Survived the Pleistocene Extinction Because They’ll Eat Just About Anything Meaty

Eating everything that’s in front of you is key to eking by when times are tough

Photo: CORDIER Sylvain/Hemis/Corbis

Cougars are not picky eaters. They'll scarf down pretty much any animal that crosses their path, living or already dead. What's more, they finish their meal, bones and all. A cougar does not leave any scraps. 

This dietary indiscretion might have been key to the survival of modern cougars' ancestors, according to research from Vanderbilt University. Around 12,000 years ago, big mammals around the world fell by the wayside in what's known as the Late Pleistocene extinction. The event was likely caused by changes in climate as well as a new predator on the block—humans. In the Americas, four of six big cat species went extinct during this time, leaving only cougars and jaguars to roam that land mass. 

Diets, the reserachers think, made the difference, at least for cougars. The team examined the teeth of ancient cats—including cougars, saber-tooth cats and American lions—and compared them with teeth samples from modern carnivores—lions, cheetahs, hyenas and current-day cougars. Dermatological wear and tear gives clues about what an animal ate during its lifetime. Feasting on tender meat all the time leaves delicate lined scratches, the team writes, while chewing on or crunching bones produces deep grooves.  

The ancient cougars' teeth matched up closely with those of hyenas—animals that eat the entire prey species, bones and all. American lions, on the other hand, likely had a diet more akin to that of cheetahs, the savannah's pickiest eaters, who favor only the tenderest meat. Saber-tooth cats fell in between, closely resembling modern-day lions that gnaw on bones but don't go all the way. When resources got scarce and pressure to survive increased, eating whatever came their way could have been a big advantage for the cougars.

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