Acinonyx pardinensis (Carnivora, Felidae) from the Early Pleistocene of Pantalla (Italy): predatory behavior and ecological role of the giant Plio-Pleistocene cheetah
The site of Pantalla (central Italy) yielded a rich late Villafranchian (Early Pleistocene) faunal assemblage, which includes some well-preserved large mammal skulls. We describe here two nearly complete crania and a left hemimandible of Acinonyx pardinensis from this locality, representing the most complete cranial material of this species in Europe. These finds allowed us to define more clearly the craniodental morphology of A. pardinensis. Similarly to the forms from North Africa and China, the giant cheetah from Pantalla has a more generalized skull than the living Acinonyx jubatus, showing some primitive, pantherine-like features such as the less domed dorsal outline of the cranium, the more developed sagittal and nuchal crests and the less bowed zygomatic arches. High-resolution CT scans of the specimens were used to obtain the first 3D model of a cranium with articulated mandible of A. pardinensis. Starting from the insertion areas on this model we reconstructed the jaw muscles of the Pantalla felid, confirming its affinities with pantherine felines. In the light of the musculoskeletal skull anatomy and the average body mass (about 80 kg), it is likely that A. pardinensis could kill large prey through a hunting strategy more similar to pantherine cats than to the living cheetah.