Ancient American lion fossil found in dry Mississippi River

  • A local found a fragment of a pine tree along the drought-stricken Mississippi River in October, according to local news outlets.
  • Experts say it belonged to a lion that roamed the eastern United States 11,000 years ago.
  • The vital flow is falling to historic lows amid the Midwest drought, NOAA says.

In late October, along the drought-stricken Mississippi River, a Mississippi resident made a rare discovery — according to the McClatchy News, a fossilized jawbone of an American lion that roamed the area about 11,000 years ago.

According to the news agency, it is only the fourth ancient American lion fossil found in Mississippi.

Wiley Prewitt, a local resident, stumbled upon what appeared to be a giant black tooth in the sand and decided to take the find to a Mississippi Fossil & Artifact Symposium and Exhibition event on Oct. 29. “I could tell right away by the teeth it was a fragment of a carnivore’s jaw, but I didn’t dare hope it was from an American lion,” Prewitt told McClatchy News. “It certainly looked right, but I did wouldn’t let me believe it.”

Illustration of an American lion.  Only four fossils have been discovered in Mississippi.

Illustration of an American lion. Only four American lion fossils have been discovered in Mississippi so far.

National Park Service illustration by Benji Paysnoe.

Experts confirmed that it belongs to the species Panthera atrox, better known as the great American lion. Researchers believe it was the continent’s largest big cat, measuring nearly 8 feet long, 4 feet tall and could weigh up to 1,000 pounds, according to the National Park Service. It has been extinct for about 11,000 years.

A barge ran aground in Rosedale, Mississippi during low tide along the Mississippi River on October 20, 2022.

A barge ran aground along the Mississippi River in Rosedale, Mississippi, during low tide in October.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Mississippi River is a vital transportation route, and its unusually low water level has disrupted shipping in several states in recent months. Some places along the river reported the lowest water levels in 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in its latest climate report, adding that barges failed to clear parts of the river and ran aground.

Man looks at a wooden shipwreck on the bank of low river waters

A man walking along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, pauses to view a shipwreck exposed by low water levels in October.

Sara Cline/AP photo

The fossil is the latest remnant of the past unearthed by the Mississippi River drought. In early October, low water levels revealed an old sunken ship on the banks of the river. Archaeologists believe the remains come from a ferry that sank in the late 19th or early 20th century after being damaged in a storm, The Associated Press reported.

Although this was the first time the ship was fully uncovered, small parts of the ship emerged from low tide in the 1990s.

“At the time, the ship was completely covered in mud and there was mud all over the place so only the very tops of the sides were showing,” Louisiana state archaeologist Chip McGimsey told the AP when the shipwreck surfaced in October. “They had to move a lot of dirt just to get some narrow windows in and see parts,” McGimsey said.

According to a growing body of research, rising global temperatures due to burning of fossil fuels are increasing evaporation and exacerbating droughts. Experts previously told Insider that human-caused climate change is warming the planet, increasing droughts, and receding waters could unearth more remnants of the past.


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