Dried-up river exposes a rare fossil of the largest big cat on the continent, the American lion

This fossil is so rare, that any information learned from it will help us understand so much more about this animal.
Deena Theresa
An illustartion of an American lion
An illustartion of an American lion

NPS illustration by Benji Paysnoe 

The last thing Wiley Prewitt of Exford, Mississippi, expected to find on a walk was a fossil from an animal that roamed the region roughly 11,000 years ago.

Prewitt stumbled upon what resembled a jawbone with black teeth on October 26, near Rosedale, around 140 miles northwest of Jackson, as he poked around a sandbar that had exposed itself, due to the low water levels on the Mississippi River.

"I could tell from the teeth right away that it was a fragment of a carnivore’s jaw but I dared not hope it was from an American lion," he told McClatchy News. "It certainly looked right but I wouldn’t let myself believe it."

Was it the first of its kind? Surely it couldn't be the American lion? Questions were aplenty, and there was only one way to rightly confirm.

Three days later, Prewitt visited a Mississippi Fossil and Artifact Symposium & Exhibition event and asked for an expert opinion.

Little did he know that his discovery made history.

Dried-up river exposes a rare fossil of the largest big cat on the continent, the American lion
Wiley Prewitt found the jawbone of the American lion near Rosedale.

The discovery was the fourth fossil evidence of the lion

It was indeed a fossilized jawbone of the largest big cat on the continent - the American lion until they went extinct. Eight feet long, four feet tall, and weighing 1,000 pounds, the American lion is reported to be heavier than the saber-toothed tiger, as per the National Park Service.

The giants date back 340,000 years and preyed on large animals across the continent from Alaska to southern Mexico.

Prewitt's find was only the fourth fossil evidence of the lion, with the previous three found in Mississippi itself.

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Surprisingly, the symposium happened to have an exhibit of these previously found fossils. What are the odds even?

Event organizer Anna Reginelli said that Prewitt "made history" by showing up with a "definitive American lion fossil." "I have had very important artifacts and fossils come into my outreach programs and events, but nothing as significant as the newly discovered American lion fossil," she told McClatchy News.

"The extinct American Lion was first discovered in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1830s. No one knew that giant lions roamed North America until this famous Mississippi discovery," she said "The two only other definitive American Lion fossils from Mississippi were discovered on the Mississippi River near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Rosedale, Mississippi."

One of the 'biggest of deals in the Paleontological world'

George Phillips, curator of paleontology at Mississippi’s Museum of Natural Science, described the incident as "one of those true moments where you blink a couple of times because you can’t believe your eyes. That different subspecies (of American lions) may have existed can only be known by finding more fossils — and we have so very, very few in the east," he said.

According to James Starnes, a geologist with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the newly found fossil is "the biggest of deals in the Paleontological world". He added that he was hopeful the fossil would eventually end up in a museum or lab collection for scientific study.

"This fossil is so rare, that any information learned from it will help us understand so much more about this animal, not just as a species and but about its role in the Mississippi River alluvial plain habitat during the Pleistocene," he told McClatchy News.

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