A man found a rare fossil while diving in South Carolina’s Cooper River on March 20th. Eric Proulx found a fossilized tooth belonging to an extinct American lion (Panthera atrox) while scuba diving with Cooper River Dive Charters in Berkeley County.
The Cooper River is a hot spot for finding ancient fossils, especially shark teeth. In fact, several megalodon teeth have been found in the river. However, diving conditions are extremely difficult as there is very little visibility below the surface of the water in addition to a bunch of dead trees at the bottom of the river and mud balls.
Proulx described the conditions during his March 20th dive, “It was a little chilly,” he said as the water temperature was 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) at a depth of 45 feet. He added that “Visibility was probably less than a foot.”
He went on to say that when he found the tooth, he had no idea that it belonged to an American Lion and he initially thought that it could have been from an extinct whale or dolphin. He photographed the tooth and posted them to The Palmetto Paleontological Society’s Facebook page and that’s where Dr. Robert Boessenecker, who is a paleontologist at the College of Charleston as well as a prehistoric whale and dolphin expert, revealed that it belonged to a “mammalian carnivore, not a marine mammal”.
Proulx then presented the tooth to Dave Cicimurri, who is a paleontologist and curator of natural history at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, and he confirmed that it did in fact belong to an American lion.
American lions were quite large, measuring up to 1.2 meters in height (3.9 feet) at their shoulders, and 2.5 meters in length (8.2 feet). They inhabited different locations between Canada and Mexico, living alongside several well-known prehistoric North American animals like dire wolves, mammoths, and giant sloths. American lions became extinct between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene Period.
It was initially believed that American lions were similar to Jaguars and even a sub species of tigers; however, it is most similar – and nearly identical according to DNA analysis – to the Eurasian cave lion (Panthera spelaea). It has been suggested that Eurasian cave lions traveled across the Bering Strait into North America and that’s how American lions evolved. While American lions were closely related to today’s African lions, they were genetically different enough for them to be classified as their own species.
The fact that Proulx found a fossilized tooth belonging to an American lion was a significant find as remains from the animal, especially its teeth, are extremely rare in South Carolina. He plans on donating the tooth to the South Carolina State Museum’s natural history collection. Pictures of the tooth can be seen here and here.