During the Ice Age, one of nature’s most terrifying predators stalked the Americas. This fearsome mammal would dominate the new world for over two million years, going extinct a mere 10,000 years ago – just after our ancestors arrived on the scene.
Meet Smilodon, better known as the sabre-toothed cat.
At the start of the Pleistocene Epoch, some 2.5 million years ago, Smilodon first appeared in North America. By 1 million years ago, Smilodon had diversified into three species: Smilodon gracilis, the original and smallest of the bunch; Smilodon fatalis, which lived in North America and South America west of the Andes Mountains; and Smilodon populator, the largest species that lived in the rest of South America. Fatalis was about the size of a Tiger and populator was heavier than one, making them some of the largest cats to have ever lived.
All three species of Smilodon came equipped with the infamous pair of sabre teeth, elongated upper canines that extended beyond their lower jaws. I should note that Smilodon wasn’t the only big cat to have sabre teeth; other members of its lineage, an extinct group known as the Machairodontins, had these teeth too. Smilodon was amongst the last of these ferocious felines, and as such, had the largest teeth of the bunch.
Each saber was nearly a foot long, clocking in at about 28 centimeters long (11 inches). Despite being the size of a submarine sandwich, these teeth are thin and dagger-like in shape. These appendages, and how they were used by Smilodon, have become a subject of fascination in the field of paleontology. Were they used to slash their prey? Could they be used to crush bone? Or something else entirely?
Let’s start with the slash-n-dash theory. You would think that this theory would be plausible, given the dagger-like shape of the canines and their serrated edges, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Their narrow shape prevented this, as they were too fragile to be utilized in reckless slashing frenzies. If Smilodon were to haphazardly wield their sabres and damage them, they would be unable to replace them. Unlike you or I, these felines had no dentists to rely on in case of damage, meaning that these sabres needed to be utilized very carefully.
Their fragility also prevented attacks of the bone-crushing variety. In fact, their fangs gave Smilodon a weak bite force, estimated to be about one third that of a lion[i]. This doesn’t mean that Smilodon was an ineffective predator: it just couldn’t crush its prey like some other big cats.
The answer to how Smilodon used its sabres lies in its physique. Smilodon was much stockier and muscular than other big cats like tigers and lions, helping to make up for that weak bite force. Becoming ripped came at a cost however, as Smilodon would have been incapable of long pursuits and instead relied on ambush hunting.
Based on this, it seems that Smilodon relied on short bursts of power to catch unsuspecting prey. It was only after their muscular frame managed to subdue their victims that the killer canines were drawn out. Instead of slashing their prey, Smilodon would have used their teeth to precisely sever the windpipe or key blood vessels within the prey’s neck. This theory is supported by studies on Smilodon’s jaws, which have revealed they could open their mouths extremely wide[ii].
Instead of instruments of power, Smilodon utilized its sabre-teeth as precise daggers to inflict maximum damage to their prey. This doesn’t mean their attacks were painless however, as skeletons of Smilodon show a high rate of injury compared to other predators. Part of the issue has to do with their choice of prey, as tough herbivores like bison and multitone hooved animals in South America were regular opponents. Having to hold down such large prey puts your body in danger, which led to high proportions of shoulder and back injuries on Smilodon skeletons[iii].
The fact that many of these cats survived their injuries may signal that Smilodon participated in social behaviours. The volume of specimens preserved at the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles – a natural death trap that attracted scavengers as prey got caught in tar – may also signal such behaviours. Though some may draw comparisons to lions based on this, it is important to note that Smilodon’s ancestors diverged from lions some 15 million years ago, meaning such comparisons may be unfounded. Additionally, lions are the only extant big cats to live in groups, so pack hunting in Smilodon should be taken with a grain of salt.
More interesting are injuries to the skull of Smilodon. Erosions and microfractures to skull bones of Smilodon may be due the utilization of its teeth and the necessity of perfectly aligned bites[iv]. Having to bite through the hide of a struggling bison is hard enough, but when you must perfectly align your teeth with its neck, imprecision and injuries are inevitable. All signs point towards the ambush and stab style of hunting to be a physically demanding lifestyle, but despite this, Smilodon still managed to reign supreme in the Americas for millions of years.
The sabre-tooth cat Smilodon has built an impressive legacy as one of the most ferocious mammalian predators. Smilodon represented the best of two worlds, combining the physique of a brawler with the tactical precision of a samurai to incapacitate its prey. Though it would go extinct with its chosen prey during the last ice age, the terrifying fangs of Smilodon live on in our nightmares.
Thank you for reading today’s article! If you enjoyed this content and are interested in how Smilodon – a North American cat – got to South America, then I suggest you read about the Great American Biotic Interchange, here at Max’s Blogosaurus!
I do not take credit for any images found in this article.
Header image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, found here
Smilodon with woodpeckers courtesy of Simone Zoccante, found here
Melanistic Smilodon courtesy of Anthony Hutchings, found at his twitter here
Smilodon vs Dire wolves courtesy of Mark Hallett, found here
Smilodon vs young Columbian Mammoth courtesy of Teo, found here
Smilodon fatalis in the sunset courtesy of Alejandro Letosa, found at his DeviantArt here
[i] McHenry, Colin R., et al. “Supermodeled Sabercat, Predatory Behavior in Smilodon Fatalis Revealed by High-Resolution 3D Computer Simulation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 41, 2007, pp. 16010–16015., https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0706086104.
[ii] Brusatte, Stephen, et al. The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us. Mariner Books, 2022.
[iii] Brown, Caitlin, et al. “Skeletal Trauma Reflects Hunting Behaviour in Extinct Sabre-Tooth Cats and Dire Wolves.” Nature Ecology & Evolution, vol. 1, no. 5, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0131.
[iv] Duckler, Geordie L. “Parietal Depressions in Skulls of the Extinct Saber-Toothed Felid Smilodon Fatalis: Evidence of Mechanical Strain.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, vol. 17, no. 3, 1997, pp. 600–609., https://doi.org/10.1080/02724634.1997.10011006.
One reply on “Open Wide! How Did the Sabre-Toothed Cat use its Teeth?”
A very educational program 👍