Dive Into La Brea Tar Pits Reveals Why Coyotes Outlived Saber-Toothed Cats

Illustration depicting the hunting behavior of La Brea carnivores, including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and coyotes. (Mauricio Antón)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The thick soup that is Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits provides a brutal lesson in nature and helps explain why today Angelenos have coyote problems instead of large saber-toothed cats in the Hollywood Hills.

Today, museums and art installations dot the landscape around the bubbling tar pit that once trapped large predators and prey, such as mammoths and dire wolves. Those larger animals died off due to multiple variables, but what’s clear is the animals who could adapt to a changing environment were able to outlast their larger ancestors, according to a study published in the journal Current Biology on Monday.

Fossilized teeth found in the black, viscous tar give a glimpse into the diets of ancient predators, according to the study that explains how saber-tooth tigers, American lions and cougars hunted prey that lived in forests.

Meanwhile, the ancestors of today’s gray wolves, cougars and coyotes hunted prey such as bison and horses in open fields, researchers say, noting many larger animals were likely impacted by climate change and the arrival of humans to their environment.

Previous theories speculated that there was a limited supply of food that drove to the extinction of larger animals, but there was actually little overlap between the apex predators found in the tar pits, according to the study.

Animals alive today in the Americas were simply better able to adapt to the die-off of larger animals and better scavenged for food. This would explain why larger animals gave way to smaller, more adaptive predators like coyotes, says Larisa DeSantis, a Vanderbilt University paleontologist and lead researcher.

As part of her research, DeSantis took molds of teeth found at the site and shaved off tiny bits of enamel for chemical analysis, which provided her with insight into what the animals ate.

For the last decade, DeSantis studied these teeth samples of ancient predators who likely lived during the Pleistocene Epoch, which spanned 2.6 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago, and spread across several glacial and interglacial periods. It also butted up against the arrival of humans. The tar pits first bubbled up around 50,000 years ago, according to the study.

“The other exciting thing about this research is we can actually look at the consequences of this extinction,” DeSantis said. “The animals around today that we think of as apex predators in North America – cougars and wolves – were measly during the Pleistocene. So, when the big predators went extinct, as did the large prey, these smaller animals were able to take advantage of that extinction and become dominant apex predators.”

Several research institutes, including Vanderbilt University, are studying the causes of these extinction events and will publish their results in an upcoming study.

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