Big Cats Hunting Elephants

The big fanged cats, Smilodon fatalis and Dinobastis serus, of the Pleistocene evidentally hunted mammoths and mastodons.  Even with their advantageous adaptations of long canines and powerful upper bodies, it seems incredible that they could bring down prey so much larger than they were.  Yet on rare occasions African lions successfully attack juvenile elephants.

The pride of lions in this photo successfully killed this elephant.

Here’s a youtube video of the incident as narrated by David Attenborough.

The big question, another Pleistocene mystery unlikely ever to be answered with certainty, is how did North America’s big Ice Age cats kill mammoths and mastodons?  We know for sure at least 1 species did.  The remains of mammoth and mastodon  were found in Friesenhahn Cave, Texas associated with fossil skeletons of the scimitar-toothed cat.  ( )   Gnaw marks on the long bones of the proboscideans match those from the teeth of this cat.  All of the proboscidean teeth belonged to juveniles.  They were not necessarily baby mastodons and mammoths, but rather from yearlings because the babies were too well-guarded by adults but the yearlings, as most young of a species, possessed a reckless curiousity and wandered farther away from the herd, making them vulnerable.  Full grown adults probably were just too big to bring down.  Did the scimitar-toothed cat work in groups or did they have a special skill allowing them to tackle a juvenile proboscidean themselves?  I lean toward the latter scenario because most cats are solitary species.  The above video shows that it takes a very large pride of lions to bring down an elephant.  They have difficulty penetrating the tough hide of an elephant with their relatively short canines.  But scimitar-tooths and saber-tooths had specially adapted canines capable of slicing right through tough hide.  A bite through the neck could cause a  quick death.

A family group of scimitar-tooths traveling through the snows of, who knows, let’s say Arkansas.  This beautiful illustration and the next were drawn by Mauricio Anton for the book The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner (Columbia University Press 1997).

Beringian lions among woolly mammoths in Alaska.  Lions depicted here may be an inaccurate portrayal.  They probably didn’t have manes.

Most of the mammoth and mastodon fossils found in Friesenhahn Cave were teeth.  This puzzled scientists because proboscidean skulls seem heavy and awkward for even a big cat to carry any distance, and it’s certain they obtained their prey from some water holes hundreds of yards away where they ambushed their victims.  However, C.W. Marean and  C.L. Ehrhardt determined that’s exactly what they did.  I propose the big cats used the trunk as a handle.  Perhaps, the cats long necks were an adaptation to help carry the dismembered heads of mammoths.  By clenching the trunk between their jaws, they could trot along and clear the ground as they carried their gruesome prize.

There’s no direct evidence that Smilodon also hunted juvenile mammoths and mastodons, but I’m sure they did.  The existence of long canines is indirect evidence.  One study of Smilodon bone chemistry from Rancho la Brean specimens found evidence they mostly ate horse and bison, but I think the fangs gave them the ability to exploit proboscideans when the other prey animals were temporarily unavailable.  Panthera atrox, the giant lion or panther, may have also hunted probosideans but only if they lived in prides like their African cousins.  This is uncertain.  I think we can rule jaguars out as probosidean hunters.  Perhaps large packs of dire wolves attacked juvenile mammoths but I doubt they were often successful.  Even a juvenile, if on the rampage, could trample many individuals and decimate a pack.

Being able to kill juvenile proboscideans gave fanged cats an evolutionary advantage over other predators in environments where mammoths or mastodons were present in greater biomass than smaller prey items.  The extinction of these beasts made it more difficult for the fanged cats to survive, especially when humans may have considered them number 1 on the most wanted list and probably killed them on site with spears.


Marean, C. W. and C.L Erhardt

“Paleoanthropological and Paleoecological implications of the Taphonomy of a Saber-tooth’s den”

Journal of Human Evolution  29 1995

5 Responses to “Big Cats Hunting Elephants”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    There are even recent recorded hunts in which lions have successfully attacked and killed adult elephants. Of course it seems pretty certain that only a pack animal such as a lion could achieve such a feat. I’ve never read of an instance of a tiger attacking and killing a healthy adult elephant.

    After reading a number of books on the subject (including THE SIXTH EXTINCTION and THE CALL OF DISTANT MAMMOTHS) I am convinced that it was probably the appearance of humans in North America that did in the Pleistocene megafauna here, just as it was the case in Australia. Humans appear, megafauna suddenly vanishes. Not a coincidence.

  2. Mark L Says:

    I’m not so convinced on the human forced extinction claim, to be honest. I don’t see humans as being widespread enough to have a constant and impacting affect on widely dispersed mammals like mastadons and mammoths. Skip a generation of mammoth hunters due to either overhunting or widespread disease, and the skills to hunt mammoths in a culture are lost (see our space program). The recent WNS and chytrid (Bd) outbreaks may show us a new extinction path, as physical contact between mammals is absolutely necessary to continue the species (well, us included until the past 50 years). Just an alternate theory to toss around. It looks to me like humans were not well enough dispersed to kill even the smallerhighly isolated popualtions…unless we have underestimated the human population. Jmho

  3. markgelbart Says:

    The technology to hunt mammoths and mastodons was not rocket science to borrow the cliche`. All it took was a spear up the ass. No special knowledge required.

    Dr. Allroy used a computer model that determined even low levels of hunting could have caused the extinction of slow-reproducing megafauna within a 1600 year timespan. There is no way of determining the population of late Pleistocene humans. Evidentally, there were enough to wipe out the animals.

    In my opinion overhunting by humans is the only logical explanation for the extinction of so many different species.

    There’s no evidence of hyperdisease as a cause of megafauna extinction. There is no known disease that will kill off 100% of the population of that many different genera.

  4. James Robert Smith Says:

    Read the two books I mentioned earlier. I find the argument of human-caused extinction to be a closed case. We did it, just as we’re doing it now to everything in sight.

    You can see the withering of Australian megafauna as the Aborigine expanded across Australia from west to east. Before the arrival of the Aboringine the populations of the big animals were solid and constant. After…they’re just suddenly gone. And not just the big mammals, but the large birds and reptiles, too.

    Same thing with the appearance of the Maoris in New Zealand. Before they arrived, there were plenty of Moa birds and Haast’s eagles. After…the megafanua birds were exterminated.

    Humans are the most destructive invasive species ever to appear in any environment into which they’ve spread.

  5. Nature's Kings Says:

    Cats were and always will be apex predators. human actions are destroying the ecosystem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: