Vandy Scientist: Cougars’ Less Picky Diet Helped Them Dodge Extinction

While cougars still roam parts of the southeast, saber-toothed cats have been extinct for millennia. (Photo: WPLN/Daniel Potter)

While cougars still roam parts of the southeast, saber-toothed cats have been extinct for millennia. (Photo: WPLN/Daniel Potter)

It might seem crazy today, but in geologic terms, it wasn’t that long ago when Tennessee was home to camels, rhinoceroses and red pandas.  Nashville’s hockey team takes its mascot from a sabre-tooth cat unearthed in the area.

While such cats are long gone—extinct like the dire wolf and the American lion—wild cougars still roam the southeast in places like Arkansas and Florida.  With a new analysis in Biology Studies, Vanderbilt paleontologist Larisa DeSantis offers some hints as to why such cougars survived, where their sabre-toothed cousins perished. 

DeSantis also sometimes drills out several small segments of a tooth, which through chemical analysis can give a clearer portrait of the animal over time.  “You are what you eat, so whatever you consume is being incorporated into all your tissues,” from teeth and bone to organs and hair, DeSantis says.  Old teeth offer particularly helpful clues because enamel is slow to break down or mineralize. (Photo: WPLN/Daniel Potter)

DeSantis also sometimes drills out several small segments of a tooth, which through chemical analysis can give a clearer portrait of the animal over time. “You are what you eat, so whatever you consume is being incorporated into all your tissues,” from teeth and bone to organs and hair, DeSantis says. Old teeth offer particularly helpful clues because enamel is slow to break down or mineralize. (Photo: WPLN/Daniel Potter)

DeSantis often looks at ancient animals’ teeth, rendering 3-D images of microscopic features that resemble valleys and craters on a topographic map on her computer screen, teasing out hints about a creature’s final meals.  “We actually call it the last-supper effect because it really is their last supper or last few suppers,” she says.

DeSantis focused her analysis on cats from 10 to 35 thousand years ago, found at California’s La Brea Tar Pits: “By far the richest Pleistocene locality for carnivores,” because the tar seep functioned as a trap, miring herbivores like giant mammoths.  “You can imagine that’s going to attract quite a few cats,” she says.

What she found is that American lions and and sabre-tooth cats were “living the good life,” eating flesh, as opposed to munching on bone and scavenging carcasses.

By contrast, both modern cougars and ancient ones from the tar pit turned out to have much broader diets.  Indeed, modern cougars eat everything from deer and elk to armadillos.  “They’re highly opportunistic; they will scavenge.”  And that less picky diet, DeSantis says, may have just been key to the cougars’ survival.

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