Paleontology Curatorial Postcard 07-08-20
The North American cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani) was the fastest land predator in North America until its extinction at the end of the Ice Age 13,000 years ago. Some paleontologists theorize that it preyed upon pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana), the fastest herbivore in North America. Pronghorns can reach speeds of more than 53 miles an hour across great distances. None of the pronghorn’s modern predators can match its top speed. This leads paleontologists to believe there may have been an ecological relationship between the North American cheetah and pronghorn.
Cheetah fossils are rare with only 10 to 12 sites known in North America. Two of these sites are in Nevada. This is the holotype for the species, meaning it is the specimen used to represent the species when it was described by scientists. It was discovered in a cave at the now dry Winnemucca Lake northeast of Reno. The other specimen, discovered at Mineral Hill Cave in Eureka County, is the oldest known North American cheetah (radiocarbon dated > 50,000 years ago). The name “North American cheetah” is a misnomer as it was more closely related to the puma or mountain lion than the African cheetah.
Rachel K. Delovio is the Anthropology Collections Manager at the Nevada State Museum and Bryan Hockett, PhD, is the lead archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada.
Photo credit: Jeanette McGregor, NSM