Acinonyx pardinensis: The Need For Speed

Article by: Lewis Haller
Edited by: Harry T. Jones and J. D. Dixon

Name: Acinonyx pardinensis
Age: Pleistocene (2.1 – 0.5 Million Years Ago)
Diet: Carnivore
Size: 90 cm at the shoulder approx.
Weight: 80 kg approx.
Location: Europe

Cheetahs are large cats characterised by their distinctive rounded skull and tooth morphologies. They are a group of thin, long-limbed cats with only one living species, Acinonyx jubatus. However, ~ 2 million years ago, there was another species. Acinonyx pardinensis (A. pardinensis), sometimes called the Giant Cheetah or the European Cheetah, had similar dimensions to a lion, but at a quarter of the weight, and it could have been the fastest land animal around at the time. It was first described in 1828 by Croizet and Jobert, and, like its modern counterpart, was carnivorous, hunting fast moving, agile prey like gazelle and horses.

Acinonyx pardinensis in pursuit of its prey, a Gazellospira. Morphologically, Acinonyx pardinensis looks quite similar to the modern cheetah. Artwork by Maurico Antón.

Like the modern cheetah, the European cheetah was built for speed. With longer legs and a longer spine than its modern relative, it seems logical that the European cheetah would have been faster, as speed is directly related to stride length. However, the European cheetah is less well adapted than its modern cousin, with more robust limbs and increased weight. Therefore, it is possible to theorise that it could have been as fast as or slower than its extant relative. Larger size is also common with cold climates and so the European cheetah’s increased size might have been due to their more northerly home, rather than selection towards speed.

In 2014, a team of scientists looked at the morphology of A. pardinensis’ head. They found that the temporal musculature was the same size and shape of that of a jaguar. The skull of A. pardinensis appears to be in between that of a modern cheetah and a jaguar, morphologically speaking. Research also suggests that the bite force that A. pardinensis could apply would have been similar to that of a jaguar, as it appears that as body size increases in cats, bite force remains constant. The method of hunting that A. pardinensis would have used is still more or less unknown. The postcranial skeleton doesn’t tell us much as it can be easily affected by ecological and environmental factors, and many big cats have similar proportions even when their hunting methods differ greatly.

A size comparison between Acinonyx pardinensis and a modern cheetah. Artwork by Maurico Antón.

Cheetahs are now found near exclusively in African grasslands, but they used to occupy open forest habitats across most of Eurasia, before being potentially eliminated by humans. Like many megafauna of the Pleistocene, the exact cause of A. pardinensis‘ extinction is unknown. It is possible they were outcompeted by other predators in the area, as A. pardinensis would have been on a lower tier of predator compared to the sabre-tooths and other large cats. Climate change is also a possibility, and with associated environmental change, they may have struggled to adapt to their new environment.

Image References
[1, 2] Antón, M. (2016). Sprint of the giant cheetah. Chasing Sabretooths. Accessed 4th March 2020. Click Here.

Information References and Further Sources
[1] Antón, M. (2016). Sprint of the giant cheetah. Chasing Sabretooths. Accessed 4th March 2020. Click Here.
[2] Cherin, M., Iurino, D. A., Sardella, R., and Rook, L. (2014). ‘Acinonyx pardinensis (Carnivora, Felidae) from the Early Pleistocene of Pantalla (Italy): predatory behavior and ecological role of the giant Plio–Pleistocene cheetah’, Quaternary Science Reviews, 87 pp. 82-97. Accessed 3rd June 2020. Click Here.
[3] Christiansen, P., Mazák, J. H., and Ayala, F. J. (2009). ‘A Primitive Late Pliocene Cheetah, and Evolution of the Cheetah Lineage’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (2), pp. 512-515. Accessed 3rd March 2020. Click Here.
[4] Hemmer, H., Kahlke, R.-D., and Vekua, A. K. (2011). ‘The cheetah Acinonyx pardinensis (Croizet et Jobert, 1828) s.l. at the hominin site of Dmanisi (Georgia) – A potential prime meat supplier in Early Pleistocenen ecosystems’, Quaternary Science Reviews, 30 (19-20), pp. 2703-2714. Accessed 4th March 2020. Click Here.
[5] Turner, A., and Antón, M. (1997). The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. Columbia University Press: New York.