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The Path to Extinction: African Lions Face Same Threats That Wiped Out Big Cats During the Ice Age

May 11, 2017 06:13 AM EDT
The same dangers that killed off big cats during the last Ice Age are threatening the existence of surviving cats now.
(Photo : Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Lions have been part of the African landscape, but their reign might soon come to an abrupt end. The very same dangers that caused the extinction of seven big cats during the last Ice Age are devastating African lions and Sunda clouded leopards today.

According to a report from the University of Sussex, researchers analyzed whether big cat extinction trends during the Ice Age could be applied to the populations of modern species. They studied the extinction of seven large cats from the Ice Age -- four different sabre-toothed cats, the cave and American lions, and the American cheetah -- discovering that only a small chunk of their preferred prey species are still present.

Specifically, only 25 percent of the prey species still live in the cats' former natural ranges, while most are already extinct. The overwhelming loss of prey suggests that it could have been a major key in the extinction of the big cats.

Unfortunately, the availability of prey in big cat habitats continues to be a big problem in recent times. If all of the current threatened and declining prey species in the big cat natural ranges suddenly went extinct today, the Africal lion would be left with only 39 percent of their prey species. The Sunda clouded leopard would have only 37 percent.

"This joint study clearly shows that if primary big cat prey continues to decline at such a rate then big cats, including lion, Sunda clouded leopard, tiger and cheetah are at high risk of extinction," Dr. Chris Sandom of the University of Sussex said. "Where prey species have, or are likely to become extinct, this poses a serious risk to the big cat species which feed on them and we now know this is the continuation of an unhappy trend which began during the last Ice Age."

The study was led by researchers from the University of Sussex, Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru), Aarhus University and University of Goteborg.

Their findings have been published in the journal Ecography.

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