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Earth Notes: Ancient Cheetahs in the Grand Canyon

GRCA RAMPART CAVE - LOW RES - FINAL.jpg
Julius Csotonyi
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This painting depicts a Pleistocene scene in Rampart Cave in the western part of Grand Canyon, with a cheetah-like cat feeding on a Harrington's mountain goat, with a Shasta ground sloth and a California condor in the distance.

The Grand Canyon was full of wondrous creatures during the last Ice Age, including enormous ground sloths and soaring condors. Now, scientists say they can add an unexpected animal to the list: the American cheetah.

This fleet-footed North American cat went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. It was long thought to chase its prey through savannas and open woodlands, just like modern African cheetahs. No one expected to find them in the steep, rugged environment of the Grand Canyon.

But scientists with the National Park Service Paleontology Program recently took another look at bones recovered from three caves in the Grand Canyon, which were mislabeled as mountain lions. The bones really came from American cheetahs, and were probably dragged into the caves by nibbling rodents.

Rampart Cave had fossilized cheetah droppings as well, suggesting the cats lived in the cave for at least a short period of time. Bones from Rampart Cave belonged to a cub and a young adult cheetah. The adult may have died in a battle with another of its kind, since its skull shows puncture marks left by big teeth.

The discovery is changing the way scientists think about the life history of the American cheetah. Instead of racing through open grasslands, it scaled steep walls in pursuit of mountain goats and bighorn sheep…. similar to modern snow leopards or the Asiatic cheetahs that live in dry, mountainous areas of Iran.

It’s a glimpse of the Grand Canyon’s extraordinary past, and a reminder that many wonders remain to be discovered.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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