Drought Reveals Rare American Lion Fossil in Dried-Up Mississippi River

Low water levels have also stranded barge traffic and threatened drinking water

view from above of stranded barges
Barges stranded by low water in the Mississippi River in Rosedale, Mississippi, a small town near where the lion fossil was found Scott Olson / Getty Images

While exploring a newly exposed sandbar in the drought-stricken Mississippi River, Wiley Prewitt spotted something black sticking out of the sand.

Upon closer inspection, Prewitt realized the find was a tooth—and a big one at that. He suspected it belonged to a carnivore but decided to take his discovery to a Mississippi Fossil and Artifact Symposium & Exhibition event and ask the experts for confirmation.

Paleontologists now say the tooth—which is attached to part of a fossilized jaw bone—once belonged to a large American lion (Panthera atrox), a species that has been extinct for roughly 11,000 years. The big cats prowled throughout North America during the Pleistocene, first appearing at least 340,000 years ago, but fossilized evidence of their existence in the eastern United States is extremely rare. Prewitt’s tooth is now just the fourth specimen found in Mississippi.

Coincidentally, the fossil and artifact event had been featuring the previously discovered American lion fossils when Prewitt walked in with his new find. George Phillips, curator of paleontology at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, described the surreal scene to McClatchy News’ Mark Price as “one of those true moments where you blink a couple of times, because you can’t believe your eyes.”

Scientists estimate American lions were roughly 25 percent larger than today’s African lions, per the National Park Service. They stood four feet tall at the shoulders and measured five to eight feet in length. Some of the biggest American lions may have topped 1,000 pounds, while others weighed between 500 and 800 pounds.

“Because the American lion is just a different subspecies, but the same species as the African lion, it would have looked like a larger version of the African lion,” says Kate Lyons, a paleoecologist at the University of Nebraska, to Newsweek’s Pandora Dewan. “However, we don't know whether or not it had a mane like African lions, as preservation of things like skin or hair are very rare in the fossil record.”

Experts hope Prewitt will share his find with a museum or lab collection for further study, but so far, he hasn’t mentioned his plans for the tooth.

Prewitt, who is from Oxford, Mississippi, made the discovery near Rosedale, a small town on the Mississippi-Arkansas border about 140 miles northwest of Jackson. But up and down the typically mighty river, drought is causing the waters to dry up. Low water levels are delaying barge traffic and threatening drinking water in some places; they’ve also revealed the remains of a 100-plus-year-old ferry and a more modern sunken casino boat.

The river basin really needs rain, but meteorologists are predicting another dry winter with warmer-than-normal temperatures in southern and eastern regions, as the country enters a third straight year of La Niña.

“Across the lower Mississippi Valley, we are favoring continuation of below-normal precipitation,” Jon Gottschalck, chief of the Operational Prediction Branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, tells Reuters’ Karl Plume. “That would certainly, if the prediction is realized, lead to continued low water levels and exacerbate drought conditions there.”

Editor’s Note, November 22: The lead photo for this story has been changed to more accurately reflect the location of the American lion fossil find.