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New Discovery on the Mysterious Family Life of Notorious Saber-Toothed Tiger
A new study by scientists at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and University of Toronto, published on January 7, 2021, in iScience, documents a family group of the saber-toothed cats whose remains were discovered in present-day Ecuador. By studying the fossils, collected for the ROM in the early 1960s, the scientists were able to show that while the supersized Ice Age cats grew quite quickly, they also appeared to stay with their mother for longer than some other large cats before forging their own path.
“This study started out as a simple description of previously unpublished fossils,” says Ashley Reynolds, a graduate student based at the Royal Ontario Museum who led the study while completing her PhD research in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. “But when we noticed the two lower jaws we were working on shared a type of tooth only found in about five percent of the Smilodon fatalis population, we knew the work was about to become much more interesting.”
Saber-toothed cat adult and subadult size comparison. Credit: Ashley Reynolds © Royal Ontario Museum
Encouraged by this new discovery, the researchers dug deeper and found that they were likely looking at three related individuals: one adult and two “teenaged” cats. What’s more, they were able to determine that the younger cats were at least two years old at the time of their death, an age at which some living big cats, such as tigers, are already independent.
To support this conclusion, the team studied the preservation and formation of the Ecuadorian site (an area of study called taphonomy), based on historic collecting records and the suite of clues on the fossil bones themselves.
Historically, Smilodon specimens have largely been collected from “predator trap” deposits, such as the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. But the Ecuador deposit, which formed on an ancient coastal plain, is likely derived from a catastrophic mass death event. This means that, unlike the “traps,” all the fossils in the deposit died at the same time. As this preserves a snapshot of an ecosystem, fossils like these can provide new and unique insights into the behavior of extinct species.
A comparison of the lower left jaw bones from the two young saber-toothed cats, S. fatalis, that were buried together. They show similar tooth formation, suggesting that the two were related. Comparison of the two left dentaries, ROMVP 5100 and ROMVP 5101. Credit: Ashley Reynolds © Royal Ontario Museum
“The social lives of these iconic predators have been mysterious, in part because their concentration in tar seeps leaves so much room for interpretation” says Dr. Kevin Seymour, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the ROM and a co-author of this study, “This historic assemblage of saber-cat fossils from Ecuador was formed in a different way, allowing us to determine the two juveniles likely lived, and died, together—and were therefore probably siblings”
The fossils were collected from Coralito, Ecuador in 1961 by A. Gordon Edmund, who was curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the ROM from 1954-1990, and Roy R. Lemon, who was curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology from 1957-1969. Together, Edmund and Lemon collected tonnes of tar-soaked sediment which was later prepared at the ROM.
“These world-famous collections made 60 years ago have been studied for years, but a measure of their importance is that they continue to produce new insights into the lives of these extinct animals,” says Dr. David Evans, Temerty Chair of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and Reynolds’s thesis supervisor.
Smilodon fatalis was the North American variant of the species. It was slightly smaller than a lion, but it weighed more.
There is a popular theory that this animal lived in prides, as several bones are broken, yet show signs of healing. A wounded animal would not have been capable of hunting on its own, and would have required aide from other members of its pride. Many discount this theory, however, for a sabre-tooth would still be able to ward other predators away from their kills. Thus, this theory is impossible to prove or disprove.
Proteins found in fatalis bones suggest a diet of bison, horse, and sometimes young mammoth.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon sp.An artists impression of Smilodon fatalis – note the thick-set, powerful body and limbs, bob-tail and those teeth, up to 7″ or 18cm in length! The slender face and squat profile of the head indicate it would have had little biting power though, but evidence indicates anchoring of the jaw to the neck muscles – much thicker set. So though it did not have as strong a bite as even a modern lion, Smilodon fatalis combined its neck muscles with its fangs, in the ‘canine-shear bite’ technique, allowing it to slice through flesh with ease for a quick kill. (Credit: Dantheman9758)
Not strictly speaking a species, Smilodon is a genus in the Machairodontinae family – essentially the sabre-toothed cats, in taxonomic identification we would indicate multiple species with an ‘sp.‘ after the genus, like in the title.
Again another throwback from my undergraduate days but there’s a perception of sabre-toothed cats, particularly since they allegedly had a penchant for hominid flesh, that they are ruthless, savage bullies. They are portrayed as these solitary, vicious, mindless predators and, actually there’s a decent amount of evidence that that is not the case at all and that they may have been a much more sophisticated cat than we give them credit for. A sophisticat, if you will.
Sorry, I couldn’t…I mean, when a pun just…Boom! In the face! You can’t NOT use it, no matter how bad.
So, Machairodontinae, we discussed those in the introduction article. It roughly translates to ‘dagger-toothed’ and it is a now extinct family of cats. Luckily for all you people terrified of being snuck up on by something the size of a small lion, built like a brick-shithouse and with teeth like swords, the Smilodon (roughly translates to dirk-tooth or dagger-tooth) genus is also extinct.
There are three known Smilodon species and, going in order from smallest to largest we have Smilodon gracilis, Smilodon fatalis and Smilodon populator.
A size comparison of the three Smilodon species. Smilodon populator, the largest, was probably not too dissimilar in height and length to a large male African lion, however it would have been nearly twice as bulky! Clocking in at up to around 400Kg. All of the Smilodon species were bulky. (Credit: Aledgn)
The most commonly known about species is Smilodon fatalis – already my lexiphilia is kicking in and Smilodon fatalis sounds like a James Bond villain, so I love them.
They are the species most commonly known about because a bunch of the buggers fell into the La Brea tar pits in California leaving behind a lot of beautifully preserved fossils as well as a huge amount of debate.
Now believe this or not – but there was once debate about the use of their iconic teeth. You see the thinking was that having canines that big, that long, you know how teeth are? They’ll shatter on a cold toffee…The thinking was they couldn’t possibly be functional. Some people wanted to propose a sexual selection reason for them, but then that fails to explain the total lack (or at least minimal presence – again debated) of what we call ‘sexual dimorphism’ – differences between sexes, of Smilodon individuals. Who was selecting? If there was selection why didn’t we see gradual change over time?
No, there is one sensible reason they had those massive teeth, and it ties in to why they have a stout body form, generally sloped (almost like a hyena) with a massively powerful set of forelimbs and a springy set of back limbs.
Smilodon is almost perfectly adapted for hunting megafauna – We’ve used that word before, it just means fuck-off massive animals, although technically anything bigger than a sheep is megafauna, including humans. The megafauna of the time of Smilodon, though, were a completely different class, consisting of true giants like the woolly mammoth.
A Smilodon fatalis skeleton – interesting skeletal features to note are flats and ridges (e.g. notice how flat the forearm bones are, and the big crest on the shoulder-blade) these generally indicate an area in which a lot of muscle was anchored, Smilodon would have had remarkable upper-body strength, likely to grapple the huge prey they were taking down. You can also see the small crest on the top of the skull, but the more prominent blades behind the skull at the top of the neck. Animals with more powerful bites have what is known as a ‘sagittal crest’ – a ridge that tends to run from the back of the skull toward the front to anchor their big jaw muscles. The relatively small crest on Smilodon fatalis implies a gentle bite with the ridges around the neck implying a good squeeze technique generated by powerful neck muscles, rather than jaw muscles. Like a chef with a knife, they let their blades do the work. (Credit: James St. John)
Smilodon gracilis was the first to come along, existing in the period around 2.5 million years-500,000 years ago. Smilodon fatalis followed around a million years later and survived all the way up the the Pleistocene extinction event, the so-called ‘Quaternary event’ around 10-15,000 years ago. Smilodon populator was the last evolved species, with the first evidence around 1 million years ago and, like fatalis, surviving until the Quaternary extinction.
One of the downsides of the evolution of those huge weapons, those piercing teeth, was their bite was not as strong as other cats. But ask a chef what they’d rather have for tearing flesh, a large, very sharp knife with little power and lots of technique or a smaller, blunter knife with more force and the answer is obvious.
How Smilodon killed its prey is debated but the throat bite is the most likely culprit. The ‘canine-shear bite’ being the preferred technique, allowing the cat to use its stronger neck muscles to aid in the cutting of the vital spots since its jaw muscles lacked the requisite strength.
Strength testing on the teeth shows them to be stronger than your average feline canine – an adaptation clearly intending them for use and not display. Paleopathological (looking for problems with old bones) analysis also reveals wear and tear around various aspects of the jaw muscles related to repeated strain.
They bit. A lot! They bit and stabbed with those teeth.
So gracilis came first but then fatalis apparently dominated the landscape of North America so much gracilis was forced further south. An isthmus, a land bridge, between North and South America opened up allowing for what is called the ‘Great American Interchange’ – causing a seismic shift, migrations of flora (plants) and fauna (animals) between the two previously separate continents.
Fossil evidence seems to indicate that gracilis moved there and eventually evolved into the also awesomely named Smilodon populator – sounds like a metal band.
Smilodon populator was the largest of the smilodon species and possibly the largest, bulkiest felid to have existed. Slightly larger than a lion, but carrying significantly more bulk, they were perfectly adapted to the huge prey items on offer in South America, and likely outcompeted the previous dominant predators, the Phorusrhacid or ‘terror birds’, to eventual extinction. Previous mega-predators, such as Arctotherium, a near two-ton, 15 foot tall bear, was extinct by the time populator arrived, giving it free reign.
When I was first researching Smilodon for an essay back in my undergrad years one of the areas of debate that caught my attention was the question “Was Smilodon a social animal?”
There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence (mainly to do with sexual dimorphism – are a lack thereof) to suggest that there is the potential for permanent or semi-permanent pairing or small-grouping, but sociability is not something one associates easily with modern cats, never mind ‘primitive’ prehistoric cats.
The evidence for it is also circumstantial, namely that in Africa lions, the social cats, there is a likelihood to respond to distress calls from prey animals – Smilodon fatalis is found, significantly, around the tar pits of the West Coast of America, implying they, too are responding to distress calls either from their prey or potentially their kin.
There is also fossil evidence of healed injury in Smilodon skeletons, implying either a very quick recovery time (not impossible) or they’re being looked after by a social structure (also not impossible).
They are built more like ambush predators than social hunters but, again I have described their form as being ‘hyena-like’ and, tell me, are hyenas solitary?
Given the size and scale of the prey items we’re dealing with, I mean, one Smilodon fatalis compared to even a bison? and we’re not talking current bison, Bison bison (yup, real original binomial for that one) we’re talking the ancestral, and much larger Bison antiquus. You either have to kill quick or kill smart and I’m on the side of smart every time.Kitten tax! As far as I know we don’t have many, if any, examples of Smilodon kittens on display so this is the best you’re gonna get. (Credit: La Brea Tar Pits Musuem – used without permission, contact us for removal)
For a lion-sized cat, with admittedly a fair bit more heft and bulk, to be taking down the kinds of prey fatalis were I find it difficult to believe there was no co-operation. Now whether there were packs, prides, as with modern Lions, is another matter. Personally I would favour small groups either mate-pairs and their adolescent offspring, or groups of adolescent males or females who hadn’t paired up yet.
This gives them a much greater chance of hunting success, the ability to manoeuver prey into ambush situations (as we do see with modern lions) and keeps things genetically simple, obeying Hamilton’s rule (that an individual is more likely to sacrifice its own genetic fitness for its kin, rather than more genetically different individuals).
Either way, going back to my intro you can see there’s a lot more to Smilodon than just an unthinking killer.
These are animals that still exist within human ancestral memory. Our awe at the majesty of the big cats today is surely linked to the fear and regard we once held them in when we were one of their prey items, though likely little more than a quick snack.
They are a species emblematic of the Pleistocene epoch, along with Mammoths, giant bears like Arctotherium, Megatherium – the giant ground sloth of South American, the Irish elk, the woolly rhinoceros.
I love the Pleistocene megafauna, it represents such a mad, dinosaurian era of mammalian evolution, when everything seemed to get big and weird. The enigmatic nature of Smilodon, those ferocious teeth, the unknown nature of their hunting behaviours, it is all so fascinating.
An artists depiction of a late Pleistocene scene in Northern Spain – Featuring woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, European cave lions eating what looks like a reindeer, and some wild horses. (Credit: Mauricio Antón © 2008 Public Library of Science. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.)
And while the dinosaurs had their ‘Jurassic Park’, the best the Pleistocene has to represent it in popular culture is ‘Ice Age’. Not bad movies, by any means, but in no way are they trying to capture the awe and majesty of the creatures that existed in this period – A world of giants.
Saber-toothed Cats by P. David Polly
Saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis). Image was generously provided by the Indiana State Museum.
Saber-toothed cats, with their long, daggerlike canines protruding from the sides of their mouths, are one of the most iconic "Ice Age" mammals in North America. Many people think of the "saber-toothed tiger," but many species of saber-toothed cats have lived during the past 40 million years. Indeed, the modern world is unusual in not having a saber-tooth among its large cats, because in the past they were normal members of mammal communities. The most recent group of saber-tooths are the machairodonts, and it is these that have been found as fossils in eastern North America. Only the true Saber-tooth, Smilodon fatalis, has been found so far in Indiana, but its relative the Scimitar cat, Homotherium serum, has been found in northeastern Arkansas and central Tennessee, little more than 100 miles from Indiana's borders, and probably lived here as well.
Large carnivores like the Saber-tooth are normally rare as fossils because, as top members of their communities, they are less numerous than small herbivores and therefore less likely to be preserved in the paleontological record. Nevertheless, the true Saber-tooth, Smilodon fatalis, is one of the best known Pleistocene mammals because of the thousands of skeletons preserved in the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits of California. Smilodon was a large animal that weighed 160 to 280 kg (350-620 lbs), larger than lions and about the size of Siberian tigers. Smilodon was different from living large cats, with proportionally longer front legs and a much more muscular build. Its upper canine teeth are long, flat and daggerlike. Living felids use their canines not only to kill prey, but also as guides to bring the teeth together without breaking as the animals close their mouths. Smilodon's canines did not act as guides: they have no lower canines so their bladelike upper canines protrude completely past the lower jaw. Large, slow-moving animals were probably the main prey of Saber-tooths, who killed by puncturing vital areas of the neck and belly with the canines.
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Felidae
- Subfamily: Machairodontinae
Smilodon fatalis was widespread, having been found coast to coast in North America, as far north as Idaho and Nebraska and southward into South America. It is best known from California and Florida. The geologically oldest record of Smilodon is about 500,000 years old and the youngest is only 9,400 years old, an animal found during the construction of a bank in Nashville, Tennessee.
In Indiana, Smilodon has been found at the Harrodsburg Crevice site in Monroe County, just south of Bloomington, in sediments filling a sinkhole. Dire wolves, extinct peccaries, and assorted other mammals were found at the same site. The age of the Harrodsburg Crevice fauna is somewhat uncertain because it appears to be older than can be dated with radiocarbon, but the animals there most likely lived during the last interglacial period about 140,000 years ago.
The Dire wolf is well known in Indiana: the first fossil remains were recovered in 1854 from the Ohio River terraces near Evansville by Francis Lincke. The species was later described by Joseph Leidy of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences based on Lincke's Indiana fossils. At least three sites in Indiana have produced specimens of Canis dirus--the Evansville site and ones in Monroe and Crawford Counties - and it is known from all the surrounding states except Michigan.
THE MOST-FAMOUS SABRE-TOOTHED CAT: SMILODON
Smilodon is a genus of sabre-toothed cat that lived some 2.5–0.01 million years ago in the forest and bush of the Americas.
It is popularly known as the sabre-toothed tiger, although it is not closely related to modern tigers or other modern cats.
However, it was around the same size as today's big cats, if built with a more robust frame.
Three species are known in total — S. gracilis, S. fatalis and S. populator — with the majority of specimens having been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California.
It is thought it hunted by holding its prey still with its sizeable forearms before delivering a killer bite.
Smilodon's prey would have included large herbivores like bison and camel.
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.
Sabre-toothed cat, also called sabre-toothed tiger or sabre-toothed lion, any of the extinct catlike carnivores belonging to either the extinct family Nimravidae or the subfamily Machairodontinae of the cat family (Felidae). Named for the pair of elongated bladelike canine teeth in their upper jaw, they are often called sabre-toothed tigers or sabre-toothed lions, although the modern lion and tiger are true cats of the subfamily Felinae.
Sabre-toothed cats existed from the Eocene through the Pleistocene Epoch (56 million to 11,700 years ago). According to the fossil record, the Nimravidae were extant from about 37 million to 7 million years ago. Only distantly related to felids, they include the genera Hoplophoneus, Nimravus, Dinictis, and Barbourofelis. The Machairodontinae, extant from about 12 million to less than 10,000 years ago, include the more familiar Smilodon as well as Homotherium and Meganteron. Sabre-toothed cats roamed North America and Europe throughout the Miocene and Pliocene epochs (23 million to 2.6 million years ago). By Pliocene times, they had spread to Asia and Africa. During the Pleistocene, sabre-toothed cats were also present in South America.
The most widely known genus of sabre-toothed cats is Smilodon, the “sabre-toothed tiger.” A large, short-limbed cat that lived in North and South America during the Pleistocene Epoch, it was about the size of the modern African lion (Panthera leo) and represents the peak of sabre-tooth evolution. Its immense upper canine teeth, up to 20 cm (8 inches) long, were probably used for stabbing and slashing attacks, possibly on large herbivores such as the mastodon. Several physical adaptations of Smilodon suggest such a hunting technique: its skull was modified to accommodate the attachment of strong neck muscles for bringing the head down the lower canines were reduced and the molars formed shearing blades with no trace of grinding surfaces. In addition, the jaw could be opened to about a 90° angle to free the upper canines for action however, some paleontologists suggest that since the muscles in the jaw would have had to stretch significantly to enable such a wide gape, they would have been relatively weak compared with those of modern cats. The bones of many Smilodon specimens have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California the cats were apparently mired in the tar as they preyed on other animals that had also become trapped.
The extinction pattern of the last of the sabre-toothed cats closely followed that of the mastodons. As those elephant-like animals became extinct in the Old World during the late Pliocene, sabre-toothed cats died out also. In North and South America, however, where mastodons persisted throughout the Pleistocene, sabre-toothed cats continued successfully to the end of the epoch.
New discovery sheds light on the mysterious family life of notorious sabre-toothed tiger
Saber-toothed cubs playing Credit: Illustration by Danielle Dufault, Royal Ontario Museum
New research indicates adolescent offspring of the menacing saber-toothed predator, Smilodon fatalis, were more momma's cubs than independent warriors.
A new study by scientists at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and University of Toronto, published January 7, 2021 in iScience¸ documents a family group of the saber-toothed cats whose remains were discovered in present-day Ecuador. By studying the fossils, collected for the ROM in the early 1960s, the scientists were able to show that while the supersized Ice Age cats grew quite quickly, they also appeared to stay with their mother for longer than some other large cats before forging their own path.
"This study started out as a simple description of previously unpublished fossils," says Ashley Reynolds, a graduate student based at the Royal Ontario Museum who led the study while completing her Ph.D. research in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. "But when we noticed the two lower jaws we were working on shared a type of tooth only found in about five percent of the Smilodon fatalis population, we knew the work was about to become much more interesting."
Encouraged by this new discovery, the researchers dug deeper and found that they were likely looking at three related individuals: one adult and two "teenaged" cats. What's more, they were able to determine that the younger cats were at least two years old at the time of their death, an age at which some living big cats, such as tigers, are already independent.
To support this conclusion, the team studied the preservation and formation of the Ecuadorian site (an area of study called taphonomy), based on historic collecting records and the suite of clues on the fossil bones themselves.
Historically, Smilodon specimens that have largely been collected from "predator trap" deposits, such as the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. But the Ecuador deposit, which formed on an ancient coastal plain, is likely derived from a catastrophic mass death event. This means that, unlike the "traps," all the fossils in the deposit died at the same time. As this preserves a snapshot of an ecosystem, fossils like these can provide new and unique insights into the behavior of extinct species.
"The social lives of these iconic predators have been mysterious, in part because their concentration in tar seeps leaves so much room for interpretation" says Dr. Kevin Seymour, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the ROM and a co-author of this study, "This historic assemblage of saber-cat fossils from Ecuador was formed in a different way, allowing us to determine the two juveniles likely lived, and died, together—and were therefore probably siblings"Sabre-toothed cat adult and subadult size compariso.n Credit: Ashley Reynolds © Royal Ontario Museum
The fossils were collected from Coralito, Ecuador in 1961 by A. Gordon Edmund, who was curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the ROM from 1954-1990, and Roy R. Lemon, who was curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology from 1957-1969. Together, Edmund and Lemon collected tons of tar-soaked sediment which was later prepared at the ROM.
"These world-famous collections made 60 years ago have been studied for years, but a measure of their importance is that they continue to produce new insights into the lives of these extinct animals" says Dr. David Evans, Temerty Chair of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and Reynolds's thesis supervisor.
Saber-Toothed Cats May Have Roared Like Lions
Modern pantherine cats&mdashsuch as leopards, tigers and lions&mdashcan roar because of a very specialized setup of small throat bones and ligaments that form part of their larynx, or voicebox. Now paleontologists have found similar fossilized bones that belonged to the prehistoric saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, suggesting it emitted fearsome vocalizations.
Finding such small fossils is rare, but in this case was made possible by the unusual preservation in asphalt seeps at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles. Here the entire skeletons of animals such as Smilodon are often frequently preserved, says paleontologist Christopher Shaw of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, who presented the discovery Saturday at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Among the millions of fossils recovered to date at Ranch La Brea&mdashwhich date back to between 11,000 and 40,000 years ago&mdashare about 166,000 bones of Smilodon. These include 150 narrow, one- to four-inch-long bones, which Shaw now reports were part of the primitive cat&rsquos &ldquohyoid arch&rdquo or larynx. Shaw&rsquos late colleague Antonia Tejada-Flores found a cigar box full of disconnected hyoid bones of various animals in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in the 1970s. &ldquoAntonia worked out that based on the proportions of the material and the number of bones, they belonged to the saber-toothed cat, Smilodon, which is the second most common large mammal found at Rancho La Brea&rdquo after dire wolves, Shaw says.
Shaw has only recently completed a detailed study of the fossils, showing there were five bones in the complex hyoid arch of Smilodon, similar to that of modern roaring cats. Today&rsquos big felines have one of two styles of hyoid arches, which anchor both the larynx and extensions of the tongue to the throat. One style is composed of nine to 11 bones and is found in species that purr but cannot roar. The second style&mdashfound in cats that can roar but not purr&mdash is composed of five bones, with an elastic ligament between two of them.
When a lion wants to roar, it opens its mouth and &ldquothis ligament stretches from about six to about nine inches, giving it the ability to widen the throat and make a deeper tone,&rdquo says Shaw. Based on the fossils, Smilodon had a very similar arrangement of bones in its hyoid arch, he adds. &ldquoOur conclusion is that Smilodon had the capability of roaring. If it did in fact roar, it would [have been] an important communication device.&rdquo
Modern big cats roar to communicate both within and between species, and the ability is also important in social or pack animals. Some previous findings suggested Smilodon was a gregarious animal, Shaw says, and &ldquothis is a provocative new piece of evidence that might support social behavior.&rdquo
Blaire Van Valkenburgh, an expert on fossil carnivores at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, says roaring would also be consistent with Smilodon having had complex social behavior or being a pack hunter. &ldquoIf they were communicating through roaring, that would be typical of a social species,&rdquo she says. &ldquoThe discovery that Smilodon probably had a roaring repertoire and apparatus is interesting in that it suggests that roaring evolved independently in both the sabertooth lineage and the modern large cat lineage, given that they last shared a common ancestor at least 39 million years ago.&rdquo
Shaw agrees the more complex set up of 9 to 11 hyoid bones seen in purring cats is likely to be the ancestral condition for the family Felidae, which includes Smilodon and its relatives alongside all modern cats, and that the adaptation that allowed roaring evolved on separate occasions in the ancestors of both Smilodon and living pantherine cats. Perhaps the two groups shared the genes that allowed the change to be possible, he speculates.
Ashley Reynolds, an expert on fossil cats at the University of Toronto, says the finding is very interesting, but warns it may not be entirely conclusive, as snow leopards today have the same kind of larynx as other pantherine cats, but do not roar. &ldquoIt&rsquos not a direct one-to-one relationship between having that ligament and being able to roar, but it&rsquos certainly interesting to think that Smilodon may have had that ability,&rdquo she says.
Smilodon, the saber-toothed tiger
The "saber-toothed tiger," Smilodon, is the California State Fossil and the second most common fossil mammal found in the La Brea tar pits. The name "saber-toothed tiger" is misleading as these animals are not closely related to tigers. Juvenile to adult-sized fossils are represented in the large Berkeley collections. The first Chairman of the University of California Department of Paleontology, Professor John C. Merriam, and his student Chester Stock, monographed the morphology of this great carnivore in 1932. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Smilodon bones have been found at La Brea. These finds have permitted remarkably detailed reconstructions of how Smilodon lived. We now know Smilodon was about a foot shorter than living lions but was nearly twice as heavy. Also, unlike cheetahs and lions (which have long tails that help provide balance when the animals run) Smilodon had a bobtail. These suggest that Smilodon did not chase down prey animals over long distances as lions, leopards, and cheetahs do. Instead, it probably charged from ambush, waiting for its prey to come close before attacking.
Smilodon is a relatively recent sabertooth, from the Late Pleistocene. It went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Fossils have been found all over North America and Europe. Smilodon fossils from the La Brea tar pits include bones that show evidence of serious crushing or fracture injuries, or crippling arthritis and other degenerative diseases. Such problems would have been debilitating for the wounded animals. Yet many of these bones show extensive healing and regrowth indicating that even crippled animals survived for some time after their injuries. How did they survive? It seems most likely that they were cared for, or at least allowed to feed, by other saber-toothed cats. Solitary hunters with crippling injuries would not be expected to live long enough for the bones to heal. Smilodon appears to have lived in packs and had a social structure like modern lions. They were unlike tigers and all other living cats, which are solitary hunters. Occasional finds of sabertooth-sized holes in Smilodon bones suggest the social life of Smilodon was not always peaceful. The cats may have fought over food or mates as lions do today. Such fights were probably accompanied by loud roaring. From the structure of the hyoid bones in the throat of Smilodon, we know it could roar.