10 extinct giants that once roamed North America

A species of Glyptodon on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (Image credit: Copyright AMNH | D. Finnin)

Until the end of the last ice age, American cheetahs, enormous armadillo-like creatures and giant sloths called North America home. But it's long puzzled scientists why these animals and other megafauna — creatures heavier than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) — went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Rapid warming periods called interstadials and, to a lesser degree, ice-age people who hunted animals are responsible for the disappearance of the continent's megafauna, according to a study published in July in the journal Science. Other studies have placed more blame on humans, and some researchers say many factors are to blame.

Both research and the debate surrounding the reasons for the extinction of these animals will undeniably continue. In the meantime, researchers continue to find fossils of these massive creatures. Here's a look at 10 extinct animals from the last North American ice age, and what scientists know about their lives.

Related: Image gallery: 25 amazing ancient beasts

1. North American horses

Remains of North America's extinct horses. (Image credit: Copyright AMNH D. Finnin)

European settlers introduced horses when they landed in the New World. But little did they know the thunderous sound of ancient horses' hooves once covered the continent.

Ancient horses lived in North America from about 50 million to 11,000 years ago, when they went extinct at the end of the last ice age, said Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

"One of the great peculiarities of this extinction is that they died out in North America, yet managed to survive in Eurasia and Africa, which is why we still have horses and their relatives — donkeys and asses — today," MacPhee said.

2. Glyptodon

Glyptodont fossils on display at La Plata Museum in Argentina.  (Image credit: Laura Geggel)

Glyptodon looked like a supersize version of its distant relative, the armadillo. Like its cousin, Glyptodon protected itself with a shell made of bony plates.

The armored, 1-ton creature likely traveled to North America from South America via the Isthmus of Panama, a land bridge that connects the two Americas, MacPhee told Live Science.

After reaching North America about 2 million years ago, Glyptodon prospered in what is now coastal Texas and Florida, he said. But the herbivorous critter has been extinct for 10,000 years, MacPhee said.

3. Mastodons

A mastodon with its long, curving tusks. (Image credit: Copyright AMNH D. Finnin)

Mastodons (Mammut) entered North America about 15 million years ago, traveling over the Bering Strait land bridge, long before their relative, the mammoth, according to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Canada.

They were also more primitive than their mammoth cousins. For instance, mastodons had less-complex teeth — cone-shaped cusps on their molars — that helped them crunch on the leaves, twigs and branches of deciduous and conifer trees. They also ate wetland plants that weren't full of abrasive material found in terrestrial plants, MacPhee said. 

Related: Mammoth or mastodon: What's the difference?

Mastodons are also a bit shorter than mammoths, but both species reached heights between 7 and 14 feet (2 to 4 meters), according to a 2013 Live Science piece. And both had shaggy coats that protected them from the cold.

However, mastodons had long, curved tusks that measured up to 16 feet (4.9 meters) long. Mammoths, in contrast, sported curlier tusks.

4. Mammoths

The remains of a mammoth. (Image credit: Copyright AMNH J. Beckett and D. Finnin)

Mammoths (Mammuthus) traveled to North America about 1.7 million to 1.2 million years ago, according to the San Diego Zoo. Although there are some anatomical differences between mammoths and mastodons, both are members of the proboscidean family. Mammoths had fatty humps on their backs that likely provided them with nutrients and warmth during icy periods, according to a February 2013 piece in Live Science.

Mammoths also had flat, ridged molars — a structure that helped them slice through fibrous vegetation, unlike the cusped teeth of the mastodon, MacPhee said.

Related: Image gallery: Stunning mammoth unearthed

In addition, mammoths are more closely related to modern elephants, especially the Asian elephant, than mastodon, MacPhee said.

5. Short-faced bear

The skeleton of a short-faced bear. (Image credit: Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

Despite its name, this enormous bear didn't actually have a short face. But in comparison to its long arms and legs, it looked like it did, MacPhee said. He compared it to a grizzly bear on stilts, as its limbs were at least one-third longer than those of a modern grizzly.

"It had very long forelimbs and hind limbs," which likely helped it run at high speeds, he said. Modern bears are capable of short bursts of speed, "but they're not runners," he said.

However, the bear's long limbs still perplex scientists.

"One idea is that short-faced bears ran down their prey like cats do, but for a whole number of reasons, that is no longer the preferred argument," he said. "We don't know why they were adapted to having long legs."

Now, researchers are looking for clues that may reveal whether the carnivore was a hunter, a scavenger or both, MacPhee said.

6. Dire wolf

A dire wolf's skeleton. (Image credit: Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

Dire wolves went extinct about 13,000 years ago, but their bones are plentiful in California's La Brea Tar Pits and Wyoming's Natural Trap Cave. These skeletons show that dire wolves (Canis dirus) were about 25% heavier than modern gray wolves (Canis lupus), weighing between 130 and 150 pounds (59 to 68 kg), according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.

However, the dire wolf had shorter limbs than C. lupus, suggesting it wouldn't have won any races against its younger relative, the museum reported.

On the canid family tree, dire wolves split off from wolves about 5.7 million years ago, making them a distant relative of today's wolves, according to 2021 study published in the journal Nature. Unlike other canid species that migrated between Eurasia and North America, dire wolves evolved solely in North America, and they didn't interbreed with coyotes or gray wolves, the study found.

7. American cheetah

The American cheetah stood a little taller than the modern cheetah, with a shoulder height of about 2.75 feet (0.85 meters) and a weight of about 156 pounds (70 kg). However, the American cheetah probably wasn't as fast: It had slightly shorter legs, which likely made it a better climber than a runner, according to the zoo.

Researchers named it Miracinonyx inexpectatusmira means "wonderful" in Latin, and acinonyx and onyx come from the Greek words for "no movement," (based on the false perception that cheetahs don't have retractable claws) and claw, respectively, the zoo said. Inexpectatus is Latin for "unexpected," giving the big cat a name that translates roughly into "wonderful unexpected cheetah with immobile claws." [Life of a Big Cat: See Stunning Photos of Cheetahs]

Researchers dated the first known M. inexpectatus fossil, found in modern-day Texas, to the Pliocene, between 3.2 million and 2.5 million years ago, according to the zoo. They went extinct about 12,000 years ago.

8. Ground sloth

A ground sloth. (Image credit: Copyright AMNH D. Finnin)

When President Thomas Jefferson learned about a strange claw fossil found in Ohio, he asked explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to search for giant lions during their western trek to the Pacific. The claw, however, didn't belong to a lion. It was part of Megalonyx, an extinct ground sloth, MacPhee said.

Related: Top 10 intrepid explorers

Like Glyptodon, Megalonyx traveled to North America from South America. In fact, ground-sloth fossils indicate that these animals began living in South America about 35 million years ago, according to the zoo.

Researchers uncovered a 4.8-million-year-old Megalonyx fossil in Mexico, and later, specimens were found in present-day America, especially in areas that used to have forests, lakes and rivers. During warmer periods, called interglacials, Megalonyx made it as far north as the Yukon and Alaska, MacPhee said.

"But when it got cold, the sloth really wasn't built for that type of thing, so it headed south," he said.

Megalonyx jeffersonii stood about 9.8 feet (3 m) tall and weighed an estimated 2,205 pounds (1,000 kg). It survived until about 11,000 years ago, the zoo reported.

9. Giant beaver

The giant beaver (Castoroides) is mostly known from its fossils in the Great Lakes region, which is "perhaps no surprise for a beaver," MacPhee said. But other fossil finds show the giant lived as far south as South Carolina and in the American Northeast.

Like Megalonyx, the giant beaver ventured into Alaska and the Yukon during the interglacial periods, but retreated south when temperatures dropped, MacPhee said.

Castoroides was enormous for a beaver — it weighed up to 125 pounds (57 kg), much larger than the roughly 44-lb. (20-kg) North American beaver (Castor canadensis) that exists today. Interestingly, modern beaver remains are found in the same deposits as those of their ancient relatives, suggesting they had similar lifestyles, MacPhee said.

10. Camels

Yesterday's camel. (Image credit: Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

Camels that once roamed North America are called Camelops, Latin for "yesterday's camel." However, Camelops is more closely related to llamas than to today's camels, the zoo reported.

Camelops and its ancestors were no strangers to the states. Fossils show that the camelid family arose in North America during the Eocene period, about 45 million years ago, the zoo said. It lived in open spaces and dry areas, but it's unclear whether it could conserve water as modern camels do, MacPhee said.

Camelops stood about 7 feet tall (2.2 m) at its shoulder, weighed up to 1,764 pounds (800 kg) and had a short tail.

11. Saber-toothed cat

A saber-tooth cat skeleton. (Image credit: D. Finnin/AMNH)

The saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis).

12. Ice Age coyote

Skeleton of an Ice Age coyote from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits. (Image credit: F. Robin O'Keefe via EurekAlert)

The Ice Age coyote (Canis latrans), also known as the Pleistocene coyote.

13. Ancient bison

Ancient bison skeleton at the La Brea Tar Pits. (Image credit: David Monniaux / Wikimedia)

The ancient bison (Bison antiquus).

14. Extinct walrus

Extinct walrus skull. (Image credit: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County | R. Gertz)

The extinct walrus (Gomphotaria pugnax).

15. Scimitar-toothed cat

(Image credit: Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at The University of Texas)

The scimitar-toothed cat (Homotherium).

Editor's note: Updated on Aug. 29, 2023 to include new information in the dire wolf section. Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.