Armed with their saber-like maxillary canines from which they derived their name, sabre-toothed cats ruled the Earth around 9 million years ago. Fighting against all odds, they survived right up to the last ice age, i.e. till roughly 10,000 years ago, before becoming extinct.
The Saber-tooth cats had a weaker bite than other cats because their two large teeth were actually very brittle and fragile, and could break easily. Many of today’s cats also have a more powerful bite than these impressive, prehistoric creatures.
Saber-toothed cat, also called the saber-toothed tiger, Smilodon or, at times, simply saber-tooth, is a member of the now-extinct machairodontinae genus of carnivorous mammals. (Even though it is often referred to as saber-toothed tiger, it is not a species of tiger.) It was native to North America and South America, and lived during the Pleistocene era. Its habitat consisted of wooded grasslands, shrub lands and Savannah.
Interesting Facts about Saber-tooth Tigers
Sub Family: Machairodontinae
Species: S. fatalis, S. gracilis, Smilodon populato
➥ The name ‘saber-toothed’ was coined because of their maxillary canines that were remarkably long – about 10 inches on average! Although called a saber-toothed tiger, the Smilodon is not a tiger. Tigers belong to a different subfamily (Pantherinae) than saber-tooths (Machairodontinae). This means they were distant relatives of the lions, tigers and cheetahs we see today.
➥ The saber-toothed cat family consists of many different genera. These included the Homotherium, Barbourofelis and the Megantereon. Peter Wilhelm Lund, a Danish naturalist and paleontologist, was the first to discover fossils of Smilodon populator in Lagoa Santa, Brazil, in 1841.
➥ There are three recognized species, that include:
• Smilodon gracilis
• Smilodon fatalis
• Smilodon populator
➥ The Smilodon gracilis was the smallest member of the family. It may have weighed about 150 pounds. The Smilodon fatalis was bigger than the former and the biggest of them all was Smilodon populator. It is thought Smilodon populator weighed about half a ton and was the largest feline that may have ever walked the earth.
➥ Saber-tooths were large, powerful and muscular cats. However, they were smaller than the African lions, but slightly on the heavier side. Their distinguishing features were, of course, their long maxillary canines, and short yet bulky limbs.
➥ Their jaws could open at an angle of about 120 degrees. This helped them take a really large bite. However, the force of this bite was not very strong. This is because the animal had to protect its brittle canines from breaking off.
➥ It is very difficult to guess the color or pattern of their coat. This is because now only the bones remain while the skin disintegrated a long time ago. Many scholars guess their colors to be similar to modern lions and they may have been spotted, stripped or even plain coated. Even the guesswork is vague, since there is no way of knowing.
Hunting and Diet
➥ These tigers were carnivores as indicated by their large canines. They were predators that hunted down medium-sized mammals like the bison, deer and horses.
➥ They are also thought to be scavengers. They had baby teeth like humans. Once the baby teeth fell out, the adult canines would grow about 8 millimeters per month for 18 months.
➥ They used to wrestle the prey on ground and the canines would pierce the throat and cut the jugular vein. It could cut through the trachea as well, and help in killing the prey. Unlike modern wild cats, saber-tooths did not kill by crushing the windpipe. The reason may be they did not have strong jaw muscles and its skull as well as canines were not strong enough to resist the force. Their skull and/or canines would have snapped, killing or injuring them instead of/along with the prey.
➥ Saber-tooth cats were thought to be social animals like the modern-day lions that live in prides or pairs. They may have hunted in small groups during the early part of the day. They probably spent the latter part of the day, sleeping or lazing. Like all cats, they could remain still for a long time, thus making them very difficult to spot.
➥ Their ability to lie still made them good hunters, but it is theorized that they were not as fast as some of today’s cats. Thus, they could not run after smaller prey that was faster than they were. They would kill a prey and drag it into a bush or long shrubs to protect their kill from scavengers.
➥ Through observations of fossils it is clear that they had hyoid bones in the throat to support the larynx. These bones are seen only in cats that can roar, like the lion, which helps them communicate with other cats over long distances. This provides sufficient evidence that they roared similar to the lions, and may have possibly lived in similar social settings.
Why did Saber-tooth Cats Become Extinct?
➥ The saber-toothed tigers had the mastodons, ground sloths and woolly mammoths for company. These animals lived during the Ice Age and became extinct about 10,000 years ago.
➥ The main cause of their extinction was most likely climate change, terrain change and hunting by humans. As their prey became extinct, they lost their primary source of food. The smaller animals were much more agile than the saber-toothed tigers. Their heavy bodies and slow agility reaction did not help them catch quick and agile prey. Thus, starvation may have been one of the causes of their extinction.
➥ Ballooning human population and subsequent encroachment of their territory may have been one of the causes that drove these animals to extinction. Prehistoric humans get the rap for supposedly hunting them on a large scale, when they got to N. America.
➥ Another popular theory is that the fairly quick end of the Ice Age played a major role in their extinction, but then they had survived major climatic changes before, so the theory is not considered very valid. The exact reasons of their extinction will remain vague, and all we can do is believe the above theories.
Other Interesting Facts
• The saber-tooths had a very warm fur coat that protected them from extreme weather during the Ice Age.
• It is theorized that the Smilodons used their coat to camouflage themselves during hunting.
• In a similar vein, they probably also used their whiskers like all cats, for sense of touch during dark and feeling things around them.
• The tail helped the saber-toothed tigers to balance, when running and leaping over prey.
• They were more closely related to lions than tigers.
• The most common mammal fossils found in the Rancho La Brea tar pits in California are of saber-tooth cats.
• These early predators lived about 1.5 million years ago and became extinct only 10,000 years ago.
Saber-tooths lived when the fight for survival was at its peak. They lived under extreme conditions. There are extremely limited resources and little knowledge about their lifestyle and behavior, since they became extinct during a time when written records were impossible.