Interesting Facts About the Sable-Tooth Cat
As recently as 10,000 years ago, the saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis was a fearsome predator found throughout North and South America during the Pleistocene. The prehistoric saber-toothed cat, with its seven-inch-long canines, weighed up to 600 pounds and was one of the most famous prehistoric mammals. Although commonly known as the saber-toothed tiger, it is not closely related to the tiger or other modern cats.
In this AnimalWised article, we explain the origin of the saber-toothed cat, its main characteristics, its size and why it became extinct.
Origin of the saber-toothed tiger
The taxonomic classification of cats is controversial, not only with respect to extinct species but also with respect to present-day species. However, the application of new study techniques at the molecular level has clarified some gaps in this regard. Traditionally, cat species have been divided into two major groups or subfamilies.
- Pantherinae: This includes large representatives such as the lion, tiger, and leopard.
- Felinae: This includes smaller species such as the puma, cheetah and domestic cat.
Saber-toothed tigers are members of the genus Smilodon. Based on fossils from Brazil, the genus was named in 1842; the generic name means “tooth” combined with “scalpel”.
Contrary to popular belief, there were actually several individuals known as saber-toothed animals. Three species are known today: S. gracilis, S. fatalis, and S. populator. The latter two may be descendants of S. gracilis, which in turn may have evolved from Megantereon. Megantereon was an ancient machairodontine saber-toothed cat that lived in North America, Eurasia, and Africa.
When and where did the saber-toothed tiger exist?
Smilodon lived in the Pleistocene (2.5 mya-10,000 years ago) and its fossils have been found throughout the Americas. North America was home to other saber-toothed cats such as Homotherium and Xenosmilus, as well as other large carnivores. This is why the North American S. fatalis, the smallest of the three species, may not have grown as large as its South American counterpart, the S. populator, due to competition from these predators.
S. gracilis arrived in South America during the early to middle Pleistocene, where it probably gave rise to S. populator, which lived in the eastern part of the continent. S. fatalis also reached western South America during the late Pleistocene, and the two species are thought to have been separated by the Andes.
Saber toothed tiger evolution
The earliest felids are known from the Oligocene of Europe, such as Proailurus. The earliest animal with saber-tooth teeth is Pseudaelurus from the Miocene. The early saber-toothed cats had similar cranial and mandibular morphology to present-day clouded leopards (Neofelis). The lineage further adapted to the precise killing of large animals by developing elongated canines and wider gaps between teeth, sacrificing high biting power. As their canines lengthened, the cats' bodies became more robust to hold prey in place.
The earliest species of Smilodon in North America is S. gracilis, which lived 2.5 million to 500,000 years ago and was the successor to Megantereon, from which it probably descended. Megatereon itself had arrived in North America from Eurasia in the Pliocene.
Characteristics of the saber-toothed tiger
Size and weight of the saber tooth tiger
As we mentioned earlier, there were actually three different species of saber-toothed tigers that we know as saber-toothed tigers. Below, we have listed their size and weight:
- S. gracilis was the smallest species, with an estimated weight of 55 to 100 kg (120 to 220 lb.), about the size of a jaguar.
- S. fatalis was intermediate in size between S. gracilis and S. populator. It weighed between 160 and 280 kg and reached a height of 100 cm and a length of 175 cm.
- S. populator: may have weighed up to 436 kg (961 lb.). He had a shoulder height of 120 cm (47 in).
A description of the saber-toothed tiger's physical characteristics
Recent studies have shown that saber-toothed cats did not hunt large animals such as horses and bison, as is commonly believed. Smilodon may have evolved to live in the forest and fed primarily on leaf-eating animals such as tapirs and deer. A closer look at some of their most distinguishing physical characteristics seems to support this theory.
- Its large canines could grow over 7 inches (ca. 18 cm) long. They were narrow, curved, and sharp teeth that could easily cut through soft tissue. However, they were quite fragile and could have broken if they hit bone instead of flesh.
- Saber-toothed tigers had several adaptations that allowed them to have such large teeth. They had a wide gap that allowed them to open their mouths up to 120 degrees. That's twice as wide as the mouth of a modern lion.
- They were predators that stalked their prey in forested areas; they did not hunt in open areas. For this reason, their fur was probably smooth and spotted like some modern cats, a feature found in species that live in areas with closed vegetation.
- The limbs of predatory cats were short and thicker than those of other cats, and they had stronger abductors and stronger bones. This improved the animal's stability when wrestling, giving it more strength. Their limbs helped them hold onto their prey.
- A modification of the skull allowed it to develop strong neck muscles that helped it bring its head down.
- Unlike modern cats, such as lions and cheetahs, saber-toothed tigers had short tails. Big cats use long tails to provide stability and balance when hunting their prey. Without this long tail, these big cats probably would have stayed hidden and waited for their prey.
When and why did the saber-toothed tiger become extinct?
Smilodon became extinct 10,000 years ago during the Quaternary extinction event, along with most of the Pleistocene megafauna. The cause of the extinction of the saber-toothed tiger is still very controversial today, as there are several possible explanations.
The extinction of the saber-toothed tiger has been associated with the disappearance of large herbivores, which were replaced by smaller, more agile animals such as deer. It is possible that Smilodon was too specialized to hunt large prey and could not adapt. However, some recent studies have found no evidence that they were limited by food resources.
Another theory is that the last saber-toothed cats, Smilodon and Homotherium, became extinct because of competition with the faster and more general felids that replaced them. However, this theory fails to explain why other species such as the American cheetah (Miracinonyx) also became extinct during the same period.
Climate change and competition with humans are other possible explanations.
The most widely accepted theory is that their extinction was a combination of several factors, all of which apply to the general extinction event in the Pleistocene and not specifically to the extinction of the saber-toothed cats.
Check out our article on extinct species of cats if you're curious about what other species of cats are currently extinct.
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