A look at ten of some of the most dangerous mammalian predators to ever stalk the land. Much more detailed information is available upon each of these creatures, just click the names to go to them.
Barbourofelis gets a mention on the grounds that it is the largest of the ‘false sabre-toothed cats’, so called because they were not actually cats at all, they just looked a lot like them. Barbourofelis was a particularly large individual with a powerful build that suggests it got close and physical with powerful prey before delivering a killing bite with its enlarged sabre-like upper canines. This means that although Barbourofelis was not a true big cat, it was still similar in both form and possibly behaviour to the larger machairodont sabre-toothed cats.
presence of Miracinonyx in North America is taken
as a case of amazing
convergent evolution. This is because Acinonyx,
cheetah, is not thought to be related to Miracinonyx,
Miracinonyx still evolved a body that was almost
identical to its
African counterpart. This suggests that Miracinonyx
the larger and more powerful megafauna that other big cats were, and
was probably chasing animals like pronghorns (while the cheetah is
usually dubbed the fastest land mammal, pronghorns are actually
strong rivals to this title, and can actually maintain high speeds
longer than cheetahs can).
Miracinonyx was well suited to life as a sprinter with some species having partially retractable claws which meant that the claws did not slide back when not in use (say, like a house cat). These claws would have always been in contact with the ground, and like running spikes they would have offered increased traction for faster and more efficient locomotion. Miracinonyx also had an enlarged nasal cavity that allowed for a much faster rate of respiration so that its muscles would not tire so quickly while running.
spotted hyenas are actually more feared than lions by some people,
but as recently as eleven thousand years ago a slightly larger sub
species called Crocuta crocuta spelaea
(sometimes classed as
Hyena spelaea) was one of the dominant carnivores
Eurasia. Popularly called the cave hyena this animal seems to have
scavenged most animals like hyenas do today, while also having a
penchant for hunting wild horses as well as woolly rhinos like
Cave hyenas also seem to have been capable of taking on
some of the most dangerous animals of this time such as the cave bear
spelaeus, although these may be cases of
The cave hyena like its modern counterparts is known to have attacked and eaten early homonids like Neanderthals that cave hyenas would have also competed with for cave space. Cave hyenas have also been seen to be the reason why early humans could not cross the Bering Strait into North America. Evidence to support this comes from the first signs of Human settlement in Alaska coming from roughly the same time that the cave hyena disappeared.
a big cat, Homotherium was closer to a hyena in
its main body
proportions which saw it having much longer front legs that resulted in
a sloping back. As a scimitar-toothed cat Homotherium
upper canines similar to Smilodon, although not
so large that they
extended past the lower jaw. These teeth also had serrations that
meant they could easily slice through the tough hides of prey,
causing grievous wounds that poured blood. This blood loss would
incapacitate prey more effectively than if Homotherium
Homotherium would have likely eaten a variety of animals when able, but as a genus it seems to have had a particular preference for juvenile mammoths. Mammoth remains, sometimes in large quantities, are always known from areas where Homotherium has been found, sometimes in very close association. In Pleistocene times these areas would have been grassy plains and steppes, but Homotherium would have had an advantage thanks to its long legs that not only allowed for more energy efficient locomotion, but extra reach on large prey like juvenile mammoths.
Australia is world renowned for the large number of marsupials that
live there, but back in late Pliocene and Pleistocene periods a huge
predatory marsupial named Thylacoleo was one of the
apex predators of
the land. Thylacoleo has some of the most
specialised killing teeth
on this list which were oversized incisors that could slice through the
flesh of other mammals. At one time some palaeontologists suggested
that these teeth were used for cracking things like nuts, and that it
may actually been a herbivore. However new study of other herbivorous
animals has shown distinctive tooth marks that match up to the incisors
of Thylacoleo, once again strongly suggesting
that Thylacoleo was a
Aside from the teeth Thylacoleo also had retractable claws. Because the claws were retracted when Thylacoleo was just walking they remained sharp so that they could be used for extra grip upon prey. Additionally Thylacoleo also had an opposable thumb for even more grip, although it has also been suggested that these features may have been adaptations for climbing.
of if not the largest lion in the fossil record, the American lion
was one of the dominant predators of late Pleistocene North America.
Similar to its modern day counterpart the African lion, the American
lion would have hunted a variety of animals by using ambush tactics
to surprise and take down prey. However unlike the modern African
lion, it is not certain if it was a solitary or group hunter as
although interpretations of fossil evidence support a solitary
lifestyle, they do not conclusively prove that it only hunted alone.
On a side note however, cave art that depicts the slightly smaller
but closely related Eurasian cave lion (Panthera
depicts this lion hunting in groups which could hint to similar
behaviour in the American lion.
The American lion has had and currently still has a complicated position amongst other big cats as while most treat it as a sub species of the African lion, others continue to class it as its own distinct species. Unfortunately the fossil record is no clearer either since the closest lion to the American lion, the Eurasian cave lion, also has a similarly complicated taxonomic history.
No modern relatives of Hyaenodon remain today as the creodont mammals that Hyaenodon belonged to waned and disappeared in the face of competition from the newly emerging dogs and big cats. In its day though Hyaenodon was one of the most devastating predators on the landscape that hunted everything from primitive horses to primitive rhinos, back before they even came close to the sizes that they grow to today. Key to Hyaenodon’s success was the immensely powerful crushing jaws which seem to have been used to literally crush the skulls of its prey. In addition to these jaws, Hyaenodon had slicing teeth at the back of its mouth that continually sharpened themselves throughout the animal’s life. This was achieved by the top and bottom teeth rotating against each other as the animal grew older so that they constantly ground together to produce a sharpened edge. This meant that even in old age, Hyaenodon could comfortably feed from animals while other older predators with badly worn teeth starved.
Probably the most well-known and famous of the ancient wolves and with a name that means ‘dire’, Canis dirus is usually depicted as a monstrous hulking wolf much bigger than a person. In realty however the skeleton of Canis dirus wasn’t that much bigger than its relative Canis lupus, better known as the grey wolf that can be seen running around wild in parts of the northern hemisphere today. However, Canis dirus was a far more powerful wolf as indicated by the more robust bones and attachments for larger muscles. This pointed towards a specialisation towards much larger prey, much like its rival the sabre-toothed cat Smilodon ( which Canis dirus would have shared its habitat with. What many people also do not realise is that Canis dirus and Canis lupus actually co-existed on the same landscape until the disappearance of the North American megafauna towards the end of the Pleistocene. With the large prey gone, Canis dirus found itself hunting animals that were faster and providing less sustenance when caught, which resulted in its more powerful body actually becoming a hindrance. This is why Canis lupus, which is lighter and faster survived while Canis dirus went extinct.
had a number of things going for it as a predator including large
size, legs for running, powerful jaws and a greater level of
intelligence over the predators that were previously at the top of the
food chain before the appearance of bear dogs like Amphicyon.
adaptations were not just to compete with existing predators however,
but to take down larger, more powerful and faster running prey
animals that were replacing the previous prey.
Despite the fact that Amphicyon was a powerful animal, it would itself be replaced by even more intelligent predators such as the early dogs that would go onto develop new hunting strategies and behaviour.
doubt the most famous of the mammalian prehistoric predators,
Smilodon has been regularly depicted in both
documentaries and fantasy
pop culture alike. Smilodon itself however was a
of large and powerful animals, with in depth tests revealing it had a
preference for hunting bison. To deal with such large animals,
Smilodon had a very powerfully built forward body
that allowed it to
grip hold of the animal as it delivered a killing bite. The enlarged
sabre-like canine teeth that gave Smilodon its name
were certainly the
killing weapons that finished its prey, but they were also
surprisingly weak and Smilodon would have had to
first subdue its prey
by physical force before delivering the fatal bite.
Although so far not known for certain, the large number of Smilodon remains from the La Brea Tar Pits in California suggest that this cat may have hunted in packs, possibly family groups similar to today’s Lions in Africa. This fits into the fact that large numbers of dire wolf (see below) remains have also been recovered, while presumably lone carnivores such as bears are only known in very small numbers.
Arctodus - a.k.a. the Short Faced Bear
Arctodus has not made the list on the grounds that fossil evidence strongly suggests that it was a specialist scavenger and not a predator that made an effort to actually kill its own prey. Much more detailed information about this is on the main Arctodus page, just click the link above.
These are whales and as such are obviously mammals, but this list is more about terrestrial carnivores. More information about these whales can be found on their pages, as well as on top ten marine predators.