We all enjoy the thrill of seeing large wild animals such as a deer or bear. But imagine the adrenaline buzz you would have gotten if you could have seen some of the extinct animals that fossils indicate once roamed our area not so long ago.
Fifteen thousand years ago giant animals roamed the North American continent. These very large animals as a group are called megafauna, and here is a sampling of some of the species that may have stood where you stand now. There were camels called Camelops that were similar our camels only larger, and roamed in large herds. There was a long-legged Llama found from the east to west coast. A species of bison was similar to our modern buffalo, only it had a horn spread of 10 feet. The Wooly Mammoth was 9-12 feet tall and weighed 7-8 tons (present day elephants weigh in at 6). The largest known North American flying bird was a carrion feeder that had a wingspan of 16 feet and a huge, powerful bill. Our present day carrion feeder, the turkey vulture, has a wingspan of 5 feet.
Humans hunted many of the fore-mentioned animals for meat. Those animals that could have hunted humans for food include the Saber-toothed tiger, a lion-sized predator with long knife-like fangs. The most recent tiger remains were found in Tennessee and dated back to around 7400 B.C. The massive Dire Wolf was much larger than our gray wolf and had very large, powerful teeth. It was found from Canada to Mexico. The Short-faced Bear was 30% larger than our grizzly, and was the most powerful predatory mammal on the continent.
All of these large beasts died out around 7-12 thousand years ago, and scientists are still arm-wrestling over why. One front running theory is climate change. North America has had a long series of glacier events that covered much of the land with cold, steady temperatures (Ice Ages). The last glacier extended down as far as the Ohio River and receded north around 10,000 years ago. Big climate change impacted the vegetation cover that may have been too extreme for big vegetarians with big appetites to adapt to. And when the plant eaters die the meat eaters follow. Another theory is that humans arrived around 12,000 years ago and hunted the plant eaters to extinction. Both theories are debatable, and a combination of the two more likely. We modern humans are impacting wildlife habitat at an alarming rate, and need to be better stewards of the land and the wildlife that live on it. For more information on wildlife management, contact your local wildlife, forestry or county extension service.