Picture of a puma skull from Wikimedia Commons
First off, is one of the less well known felines of the Pleistocene.
The American cheetah (genus Miracinonyx) is one of the most interesting cats that people have never heard of. Only really identified in the 1970s, before then, remains of this genus had been classified as Puma concolor (puma, cougar, mountain lion) and it was only with the recovery of nearly complete specimens from Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming that palaeontologists realised this cat was something really different. The late Pleistocene species (Miracinonyx trumani) had the proportions of a running cat- like the African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), very long legs, flexible back, enlarged nasal openings for efficient airflow. Since the discovery, many have argued as to whether M.trumani was actually more closely related to the cheetah or the puma (which, despite not looking very similar are quite closely related). Should the American cheetah be Acinonyx trumani or Puma trumani? Or could it retain its unique generic status?
Not just a question of taxonomic squabbling, the answer informs our understanding of species movement between the old world and the new world, and about the way in which evolution, when presented with similar situations, produces similar outcomes.
As part of my PhD I was involved with a project looking at the genetics of extinct American felines. We managed to extract some from the Natural Trap Cave
Ancient DNA from Miracinonyx clearly showed that it was a sister species to the puma. An authentic American species that had developed a bodyplan paralleling the cheetah in response to the pressures of living in an open grassland. The American cheetah lived on the wide open prairie plains of the new world, a pleistocene biome that would have looked very similar to the African Serengeti of today, where cheetah thrive.
antelope (Antilocapra americana
) may actually be an evolutionary ghost, shaped by an arms race with Miracinonyx
. Pronghorn are incredibly fast- >50mph over reasonable distances- much faster than the wolves, coyotes, puma, or bear that hunt alongside them. Its possible that this speed evolved in response to Miracinonyx
and now that the American cheetah is gone, the pronghorn lives on, hopelessly outclassing the predators that survive today
The African cheetah, Acinonyx, means “without”(a-), “moving”(kino), and “claw”(onyx) in reference to the apparent non-retractile claws in the cheetah (which are alleged to help provide traction when running).Miracinonyx therefore means “unexpected cheetah” from “unexpected”(mira-) and Acinonyx.
Barnett, R., Yamaguchi, N., Barnes, I. & Cooper, A. 2006. The origin, current diversity and future conservation of the modern lion Panthera leo. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 273, 2119-2125.
Adams, D. B. 1979. The cheetah: native American. Science 205, 1155-1158
Martin, L. D., Gilbert, B. M., Adams, D. B. 1977. A cheetah like cat in the North American Pleistocene. Science 195, 981-982