Posted BY: Taylor Cunningham

The rain-starved low waters of the Mississippi River have unveiled several hidden treasures, including an incredibly rare fossil of a gigantic Ice Age American lion.

Oxford, MS, resident Wiley Prewitt made the discovery when he explored a newly-uncovered sandbar near the city of Rosedale. As he was walking along, a set of black teeth resting in the gravel caught his eye.

“I could tell from the teeth right away that it was a fragment of a carnivore’s jaw. But I dared not hope it was from an American lion,” he told McClatchy News. “It certainly looked right but I wouldn’t let myself believe it.”

According to the National Park Service, American lions went extinct about 11,000 years ago. Bur while they lived, they were one the largest wildcats on the continent. They grew to be around 8 feet long and 4 feet tall, and they weighed 1,000 pounds.

There has been very little fossil evidence of the lion in the eastern United States. Until Prewitt’s find, scientists only had found three fossils in Missippi.

Prewitt’s ‘Made History’ with His American Lion Find

When Prewitt shared his discovery, he did it completely unannounced. The Mississippi Fossil and Artifact Symposium & Exhibition happened to be scheduled for Oct. 29. So, he simply walked into the building and asked for an expert opinion.

One of the other three eastern American Lion fossils also happened to be on display that day, which made the addition particularly special. The event’s organizer, Anna Reginelli, said that Prewitt “made history” when he walked in with a “definitive American lion fossil.”

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“I have had very important artifacts and fossils come into my outreach programs and events, but nothing as significant as the newly discovered American lion fossil,” she told McClatchy News.

“The extinct American Lion was first discovered in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1830s. No one knew that giant lions roamed North America until this famous Mississippi discovery,” she continued. “The two only other definitive American Lion fossils from Mississippi were discovered on the Mississippi River near Clarksdale, Mississippi and Rosedale, Mississippi.”

The Discovery Could Help Scientists Understand the Wildcat’s ‘Role’ During the Pleistocene Period

American lions began roaming the earth around 340,000 years ago and lived across the continent from Alaska to southern Mexico. Many skeletons have been found in the La Brea tar pits in southern California. But because of the rarity of finds in other parts of the country, not much is known about the “eastern form.”

Thanks to Prewitt’s “can’t believe your eyes” moment, we may finally learn more about the elusive species.

“This eastern population may very well be different than the western ones. We will only know more with new specimens like this to study,” James Starnes, a geologist with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, told the publication.

“This fossil is so rare, that any information learned from it will help us understand so much more about this animal, not just as a species but about its role in the Mississippi River alluvial plain habitat during the Pleistocene.”