Cougars’ key to survival through the Late Pleistocene extinction: insights from dental microwear texture analysis

Larisa R. G. DeSantis, Ryan J. Haupt

Abstract

Cougars (Puma concolor) are one of only two large cats in North America to have survived the Late Pleistocene extinction (LPE), yet the specific key(s) to their relative success remains unknown. Here, we compare the dental microwear textures of Pleistocene cougars with sympatric felids from the La Brea Tar Pits in southern California that went extinct at the LPE (Panthera atrox and Smilodon fatalis), to clarify potential dietary factors that led to the cougar's persistence through the LPE. We further assess whether the physical properties of food consumed have changed over time when compared with modern cougars in southern California. Using dental microwear texture analysis (DMTA), which quantifies surface features in three dimensions, we find that modern and Pleistocene cougars are not significantly different from modern African lions in any DMTA attributes, suggesting moderate durophagy (i.e. bone processing). Pleistocene cougars from La Brea have significantly greater complexity and textural fill volume than Panthera atrox (inferred to have primarily consumed flesh from fresh kills) and significantly greater variance in complexity values than S. fatalis. Ultimately, these results suggest that cougars already used or adopted a more generalized dietary strategy during the Pleistocene that may have been key to their subsequent success.

  • Received March 5, 2014.
  • Accepted April 1, 2014.
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