The giant cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis) is an extinct species of cat that is the closest relative of the modern cheetah. This species could be found in Europe during the early and middle years of the Pleistocene. Its range included Germany, France, India, and China, and it shared this range with leopards and jaguars. It is thought that competition with these smaller cats may have caused the giant cheetah’s extinction.
The giant cheetah is thought to have been twice the size of modern cheetahs, about the same height as a lion at the shoulder. However, it would have weighed much less than a lion and had a highly similar build to the modern cheetah. It would have weighed an average of 260 pounds, with an average body length of 79 inches and a tail length of 55 inches. Its body shape allowed for movements similar to the modern cheetah’s, although its back was slightly longer. This species was built for running, just like the modern cheetah, with a shortened muzzle and other features that enhanced running speed and time.
The giant cheetah most likely preyed upon smaller mammals, such as the bighorn sheep and ibex, as well as species larger than itself like the elk and sambar deer. It is thought that due to its similar body structure, the giant cheetah may have hunted in the same manner that modern cheetahs hunt. First, the modern cheetah locates its prey in an open area, and then approaches it directly with tail and ears down. After engaging its prey in a chase, the modern cheetah sprints in wild patterns until it hooks the prey in its dewclaw, damaging its Achilles tendon, or knocking it over. Once the animal is down, the cheetah will clamp its jaws around its neck in order to suffocate it. Because the giant cheetah shares the physical characteristic of the modern cheetah, namely the dewclaw and underdeveloped teeth, it is thought that it hunted in the same way as the modern cheetah. As is similar to the modern cheetah, it is thought that if the giant cheetah suffered a leg injury, such as a sprain, it was in danger of death because it could no longer hunt.
Fossil records of the giant cheetah are rare, but one of the most complete skull specimens was extracted from the French Saint-Vallier site. The most complete set of fossils apart from the skull were gathered from Perrier in the Massif Central, and included the long bones and the spine of one individual. The paw bones were not found at this site, so measurements reflect those of modern cheetahs. These fossils tell experts that the giant cheetah most likely lived the life that cheetahs live today. This life was solitary, with the exception of siblings and mother cheetahs with cubs. This solitary lifestyle is thought to have decreased the gene pool, because individuals lived so far from one another. It is thought that the giant cheetah would have rarely been in contact with others of its species, and that it would have avoided conflict in order to maintain optimum health, like cheetahs today.
Image Caption: Fossil of Acinonyx pardinensis, an extinct mammal – Took the picture at Museo Paleontologico di Firenze. Credit: Ghedoghedo/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)