One of the most instantly recognizable skeletons on display in museums is that of the Sabre Tooth Cat. Today, a modern relative displays some of the same features.
The saber-toothed cat is a creature that has appeared in a number of different guises throughout pre-history. Although the various species differed in size and appearance, there was one common feature, vastly elongated canine teeth. Some had dirk shaped teeth, like the Meganteron, others, like the Homotherium had shorter, flatter teeth, curving backward, like the blade of a scimitar. Regardless of the shape, the canine teeth proved to be a formidable killing weapon.
The skeleton of the saber-toothed cat is one of the most popular of all prehistoric or mega beasts to be placed on display. Often called saber-toothed Tigers, the name implies they were striped but it is believed that saber-toothed Cats were spotted, even dappled in color like cheetahs and leopards today. The study of well-preserved skeletons has also allowed paleontologists to determine the sort of noise they made. The cats had strong, well-developed throat muscles indicating that they probably roared like modern lions.
Remains of Smilodon Found at La Brea Tar Pits
The Smilodon, often known as the Saber-toothed tiger, Saber-toothed cat, or simply Sabertooth, is a species that roamed the earth fairly recently. They were found from North to South America, living from 1.5 million years ago up to 10,000 years ago during the Pleistocene when prehistoric humans were also present in the Americas. The saber-toothed cats roamed in packs of scavenger/hunters, eating large prey for which they were well-suited.
Smilodon californicus is the California State Fossil. It is the second most common fossil found at the La Brea tar pits (the dire wolf is number one), with hundreds of thousands of bones found so far. The “saber-toothed” Smilodon is named after the super long maxillary canine teeth found in both the males and females, which were used for stabbing prey. They would stab and then they would wait for the animal to die from the wound.
The Smilodon is an extinct genus of the subfamily Machairodontinae of the Felidae family of the order of Carnivora mammals. Even though they are called “saber-toothed tigers,” they are not related to tigers, although the largest Smilodons were similar in size. Modern-day tigers and lions are part of the subfamily Pantherinae, the category for modern big cats. Most Smilodons were actually a foot shorter than modern lions, but twice as heavy in weight.
Species of Smilodon
There were three species of Smilodon with saber teeth:
Smilodon graciis was the smallest of the three species weighing from 55 to 100 kg. (120 to 220 lbs.). It lived from 2.5 million to 500,000 years ago and may be the ancestor to the other two Smilodon species.
Smilodon populator lived in the eastern areas of South America and was the largest of the Smilodons. They weighed from 220 to 400 kg. (480 to 880 lbs.), and perhaps even more. The Smilodon populator lived from 1 million to 10,000 years ago and had the longest canine teeth at about 28 cm. (11 inches) long.
Smilodon fatalis lived from 1.5 million to 10,000 years ago. It weighed from 160 to 280 kg. (350 to 620 lbs.). It was about the same size as the modern lion, but shorter and more massive. Of this species there are also two subspecies Smilodon californicus and Smilodon floridus.
The sabertooth lived in social groups like the pride of modern lions, rather than living as lone hunters like modern tigers. They were scavengers who hunted large game together as a pack. Their massive bodies and canines and pack behavior made them more efficient hunters of large game and not so successful in chasing and capturing small game.
Their pack-style behavior is evidenced by the groups found at the La Brea tar pits and other locations that died together hunting a large trapped animal. Like lions, they would have heard the cries of injured or trapped animals and would have also become trapped as they responded to the cries in the tar pits.
Research has shown that solitary hunters do not respond to the cries of trapped animals as do social scavengers. Paleontologists have also discovered healed wounds and crippling diseases such as arthritis on Smilodon skeletons that point to the fact that the group cared for the injured and aged of the group who would not have been able to hunt on their own.
Saber-tooth tigers had less bite force than modern lions, but the canine teeth were stronger in resistance to breaking. They could open their jaws 120 degrees, whereas modern lions can only open their jaws to 65-degree angles. They used their saber teeth to stab, but not to hold an animal, as holding would break the teeth and there is little evidence for loss or breaking of their teeth. They would wait for their stabbings to kill the animal, and then they would feed.
From the structure of the hyoid bones in the throat of Smilodon, it is evident that the Smilodon could roar like lions. The sabertooth had bobtails. Like most cats today, they also had retractable claws.
When comparing big cats in the wild today, a long tail is necessary for balance in running long distances in chasing prey. This would mean that Smilodons did not run great distances like the lion and cheetah, but rather ambushed their prey. While their social behavior was similar to modern lions, anatomically, with the bobtail, they were closer to modern bobcats than lions.
The end of the Ice Age in North America saw the decline of many large animals, both predators and herbivores alike. The loss of large prey and the hunting competition from prehistoric humans may have speeded the demise of Smilodon from North America.
Saber-toothed Tigers & La Brea Tar Pits
Of all the Sabre Tooth skeletons excavated around the world, the Smilodon is one of the most well studied, thanks in part to the excavation of the tar pits of Rancho la Brea, now part of downtown Los Angeles, USA.
The scene was probably horrific as animals, Western Horses, Giant Sloth, and Mastodon to name a few struggled to free themselves from the uncompromising tar. The noise they made attached attacked top predators such as Smilodon who ventured onto the sticky surface of the tar to feast on the stricken animals. In turn, they too were trapped. Eventually, their bodies sank into the tar where they remained in well-preserved states until they were excavated.
The Teeth of a Sabre-Toothed Cat
The most discerning feature of the Sabre Tooth was its canines, up to eight inches in length (twenty-eight cm). The jaws opened to an angle of 120 degrees, yet there is some contention surrounding the theories of how the mega beast killed its prey. Usually, a cat bites through the neck of its victim, severing the spinal cord. With such long teeth, this method was potentially dangerous as the Sabre Tooth ran the risk of hitting the bones of the spinal column and damaging its teeth. One theory is that the Sabre Tooth attacked the soft tissue of the neck or underbelly, but both of these areas would take the predator dangerously close to the hooves and teeth of its prey. Another, equally popular theory is that the prey animal was literally hacked to death with the Sabre Tooth biting chunks of flesh from the unfortunate creature and waiting for it to bleed to death.
The absence of a long tail rules out the probability of fast chase hunts. The modern-day Cheetah displays the use of a tail beautifully. It uses it to balance as it corners at high speed. As a result, it is thought that the ‘bob-tailed’ Sabre Tooth hunted more by stealth than speed, launching its full body force at the victim, throwing it off balance, and allowing the cat to bit off huge chunks of flesh. Yet life itself was a risky business for Smilodon. Many fossils excavated from the tar pits show saber-toothed Cat’s suffered bone damage which healed before death, implying that the Saber Tooth may have hunted in groups as some of the bone damage was quite debilitating.
Theories abound as to why the Sabre Tooth Cat disappeared. Evidence suggested that their extinction coincided with that of their favored prey, the Mastodon. Where Mastodon survived in areas for longer periods than in others so did the Smilodon.
The arrival of man is another factor that added to the demise of the Sabre Tooth, along with the increased competition for food from swifter, more agile predators, but it is possible we have not seen the last of the saber tooth cats!
Clouded Leopard – Modern Day Sabre-Toothed Cat
It may sound a far fetched, but the Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebuolsa), a shy creature, which inhabits forested regions, maybe a ‘modern-day’ Sabre Tooth in the making. Ranging from Nepal and China to Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra, the Clouded Leopard has a number of anatomical peculiarities. Their body length is long in comparison to their height. Their eyes are more characteristic of domestic cat with slit-like pupils, but most importantly their canine teeth are particularly long and narrow with lengths up to 1.7 inches (4.4 cm) recorded. And the posterior edge, like that of the saber-toothed Cat’s, is also very sharp.
Another anomaly, in comparison to other types of a big cat, is the absence of the anterior upper premolar, resulting in a broad gap between the canines, and premolars, thus enabling the Clouded Leopard to take large bites from its prey. However, unlike the Sabre Tooth, the Clouded Leopard has a number of anatomical advantages to aid its hunting. The Clouded Leopard has a tail almost as long in length as its body. Longtails aid in counter-balancing when climbing trees, so it’s not surprising that the Malaysians call the Clouded Leopard “Rimau-dahan” or “Harimau-dahan” which translates to Tree or Branch Tiger. Another aid to climbing is the flexibility of their ankle joints. In conjunction with their strong paws, they have been seen hanging from a branch suspended by one hind foot as they lie in wait to ambush their prey, usually birds, deer, monkeys, fish, and in some instances domesticated animals.
Their coat ranges in color from mid-earthy brown to yellowish-brown although like their cousins, the Jaguar, black, or melanistic Clouded Leopards are thought to exist.
If a reduction in the numbers of the Clouded Leopard due to deforestation and the interference of man through the poaching trade is stopped, perhaps we may see a modern saber-toothed Cat in our midst.
- Morgan, James “Sabretooth Tigers Hunted in Packs,” BBC News (30 October 2008) Accessed Feb 18 2010
- “Sabertoothed Cat,” Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Accessed Feb 18 2010
- “Smilodon,” Bluelion.org Accessed Feb 18 2010
- Turner, Alan The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives Columbia University Press (1997)