Saber-toothed cats are one of the most iconic animals from the last ice age. Representations of the saber-toothed cat are everywhere. Just think of the Ice Age movies or the Flinstones cartoons! The saber-toothed cat is even the state fossil of California. Each time it is shown as a big cat, like a tiger, that has extra large canine teeth. What was the saber-toothed cat really like?
Fossils from saber-toothed cats have been found plentifully all over the world. They varied in size, preferred prey, when they seem to have appeared and when they went extinct. All saber-toothed cats appeared and went extinct during the last ice age, but the timing of each species varied a little bit. All of them were listed under the scientific family name of Felidae, but listed throughout a few different subfamilies such as Mochairodoninae, Nimravidae, and Hayendontidae. Modern cats are listed under the family of Felidae as well but under the subfamily Felinae.
A great deal of what scientists know about saber-toothed cats is due to tar pits that exist around the world. Tar pits are areas where molten asphalt seeps up to the earth’s surface from below the earth’s crust and creates a shallow pool. Unsuspecting animals walk into these pools, perhaps thinking they are pools of water, and they get stuck in the tar. When a carnivorous animal, such as a saber-toothed cat happens upon the helpless animal stuck in the tar, they believe they’ve scored an easy meal. However, many of these carnivorous animals would even up being trapped in the tar as well. After the animals die, the tar perfectly preserves their skeletons and gives scientists a look into the past.
Smilodon – The Most Well-Known Siber-Toothed Cat
One of the most recently extinct saber-toothed cats is called Smilodon, which means “knife-tooth.” Smilodon lived in North and South America. Thousands of Smilodon bones have been excavated at the La Brea tar pits in California. They are the second most common fossil found there! Some have referred to Smilodon as the “Saber-Toothed Tiger,” but scientists believe that if you were to see Smilodon in person, it would look more like a bear than a cat.
Smilodon’s head was a different shape that the heads of most cats. Scientists believe that this modification allowed for bigger, stronger muscles to help bring the head down while attacking prey. Smilodon’s signature canine teeth were serrated, flattened (like knives), sharp and about 7 inches (18 cm) long. The cats jaw could open to an extraordinary 90-degree angle, but the bite strength was likely only a third of a modern day lion’s bite strength. This saber-toothed cat would have been similar in height to a modern day African lion, but twice the weight. It had a bobbed tail and short muscular legs. Most likely, this cat did not run very fast. Evidence shows that Smilodon fed on bison and camels. The structure of the Smilodon’s hyoid bone shows that it could roar loudly, like a lion.
It is likely that Smilodons lived in a social group much like a pride of lions. Evidence on fossils shows that these saber-toothed cats sustained major injuries (crushed bones, fractures, arthritis, degenerative disease, etc) that were able to heal. Without a group that would share food, an injured Smilodon may have starved to death before the wound could heal.
A Toothy Controversy
Scientists still have not figured out exactly how Smilodons used their super-sized canine teeth.Computer models are being used to figure out just how Smilodon’s huge canine teeth could be used without breaking off the teeth or putting too much pressure on its head. There are 4 main theories about how the canine teeth were used.
- The canine teeth were used to grab and hold prey.
- Smilodon was an ambush-style hunter that would quickly slash the throat or belly of its prey and then wait for the prey to die from the wounds.
- The saber-toothed cat would use it’s powerful body to grapple with its prey until it was able to strike the prey’s neck with its canines. Unlike lions that often suffocate their prey with their powerful jaws, Smilodon severed the prey’s arteries causing death to come much more quickly.
- A saber-toothed cat’s huge canine teeth were mostly of social importance like horns or antlers.
What we do know is that the canine teeth were not used for grinding bone. There were no flat grinding teeth in Smilodon’s mouth and wear patterns on the teeth do not suggest that bone was eaten. Smilodon may have cohabitated in areas with hyenas or other bone eating animals. This lack of bone crushing also shows that it is unlikely that Smilodon went extinct from lack of prey availability. The changing environment and interactions with humans are more likely to have brought them to an end.
Do you think the saber-toothed cat seems like a cat?
Sources & Digging Deeper