The Local Voice

Oxford Man Discovers Extremely Rare American Lion Fossil in Exposed Sandbar on the Mississippi River


The fossil is only the fourth ever discovered in Mississippi

The fossilized tooth of an ancient American Lion has been discovered on the drying banks of the Mississippi River. The animal hasn’t been seen on American soil since the last Ice Age and finds of this nature are extremely rare.

Wiley Prewitt, of Oxford, Mississippi, made the discovery while exploring a recently exposed sandbar near Rosedale, approximately 140 miles northwest of Jackson.

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in the United States, stretching 2,350 miles between Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico. Drought and heat waves over the summer months have caused it, like many others, to see a record decline in water levels.

Land that had been hidden beneath the currents for centuries has now been exposed for the first time. All sorts of historical oddities have been unearthed from the baking banks, including shipwrecks, Civil War Relics, and now ancient fossils.

“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,” Prewitt told McClathy News.

The American lion was the same species as the African lions we see today, but it had formed a different subspecies, Panthero leo atrox, Kate Lyons, a paleoecologist at the University of Nebraska, told Newsweek.

“The main difference between them and modern day lions is that the American lion was much larger,” she said. “Estimates range from half again as big to twice as big as the African lion.

“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. 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.”

American lions were the largest big cat on the continent — until they went extinct 11,000 years ago, according to the National Park Service. They were 8 feet long, 4 feet tall and could weigh 1,000 pounds, the NPS reports, making them a few hundred pounds heavier than the better known saber-toothed tiger.

The American lion is thought to have come to North America around 340,000 years ago. It was last seen on American soil 13,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age.

“Prior to that time, North America had many species of large bodied mammals including multiple species of elephants, bison, llamas, giant ground sloths, saber-tooth cats, similar cats, giant camels, and the American lion,” Lyons said. “The evidence for why all these species went extinct points strongly toward humans.”

Prewitt’s discovery was formally identified by experts at the Mississippi Fossil and Artifact Symposium and Exhibition event at the end of October. It is one of only four known fossils of its kind in Mississippi and was a great surprise to the event’s organizers.

“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,” event organizer Anna Reginelli told McClathy News.

James Starnes, a geologist with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, calls the newly found fossil “the biggest of deals in the Paleontological world.” He is hoping it will eventually end up in a museum or lab collection for “proper scientific study.”

Prewitt hasn’t yet revealed a plan for the fossil.

“This eastern population may very well be different than the western ones. We will only know more with new specimens like this to study,” Starnes told McClatchy News.

“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.”

Wiley Prewitt of Oxford, Mississippi, was searching an exposed sandbar in the Mississippi River, when he saw something with teeth sticking out of the gravel and mud. It was a fossilized American lion jaw. Photo courtesy Anna Reginelli
A file photo of a lion skull. The American lion may have been twice as big as modern African lions.
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