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Saber-Tooth [Prehistoric Cats – Part 2]

Did you miss the first part of this series, which covered the origin of cats?

Many animals wore the name of Saber-Tooth, a generic name which once applied to any animal with long canines. Only one of these was a true cat. These beasts have often been represented in literature and movies, but most often as mythical creatures which don’t really resemble any animal which ever lived.

This second part of the series covers these animals, but emphasizes on the only one which truly deserved the name of Saber-Toothed Cat.

Saber-Tooth? Which Saber-Tooth?

During early paleontology, when DNA was not known, animals found as fossils were classified based on physical characteristics. Animals with similar characteristics were assumed to be related. When dating fossils became possible, entire families and lineages were assumed when creatures with similar characteristics lived in successive periods. Full fossils are rare, and most often only fragments exist. Cranes, and more particularly jaws, happen to be the most frequent fragments found as these pieces more easily survived time. When fossils were found exhibiting long upper canines, they were assumed to be related and classified as different species of a same lineage. But as more fossils were recovered and methods to classify them improved, it soon became clear that all the animals previously classified as Saber-Tooth were in fact part of at least 6 different species, all unrelated.


Thylacosmilus, a marsupial, wearing the name Saber-Tooth

Classifying species based on physical characteristics and age worked fine in most cases, because nature is very creative and rarely invent the same thing twice. While pretty rare, it sometimes happens that unrelated creatures develop the same traits independently. It may sound unlikely that 6 unrelated animals developed long upper canines, but it is in fact not surprising at all. Given the extremely large amount of carnivores that walked on our planet, it seems fair that, given a similar environment, some of them may have solved a similar problem with a similar solution.

Not very related to cats, the first group to feature the long canines was not even a mammal. The Synapsids, ancestors of mammals, were reptiles which evolved specialized teeth. Some featured the saber shaped canines.

Among the mammals, two Feliformia (cat like) and two marsupials (the family including today’s kangaroos and koalas) showed the long canines. The earlier of which appeared some 42 million years ago, and the last one got extinct 7 millions years ago.

Only one true cat ever evolved long superior canines, and we are coming to this.


As we have seen last week, the Felidae family includes all animals classified as true cats, including today’s felines. It began with Proailurus about 30 millions years ago, giving rise to Pseudaelurus 5 to 10 millions years later. Pseudaelurus is thought to have given rise to two subfamilies, one of which is Machairodontinae. This extinct family first appeared in Africa nearly 20 million years ago, but spawned many species in Eurasia and the Americas. Contrary to a popular belief, these cats are not ancestors of modern cats. A recent DNA study confirms that both subfamilies have a common ancestor, but are from a different lineage.

Machairodontinae had body and legs proportions similar to modern cats, though on closer inspection their legs appear somewhat shorter. However they were generally more massive. They had a very short tail, large paws and retractable claws. They had somewhat longer upper canines. Their size ranged from lion to lynx.

Because of their heavier mass and short tail, Machairodonts probably couldn’t climb in the trees. They were land cats.


One of the later species of Machairodonts was Smilodon, appearing some 2.5 million years ago in North America. Initially about 55 kg / 120 lb, it grew in size and weight. The later Smilodons reached 150 cm / 60 in at the shoulder and weighted up to 360 kg / 790 lb. Some individuals may even have been nearly 500 kg / 1100 lb. They were the largest cats to ever live. Their general shape looked more like bears than modern cats.

Smilodon populator

Smilodon populator

Smilodon is famous for its very long upper canines, which reached 30 cm / 12 in, giving it its appropriate surname of Saber-Toothed Cat. These teeth were so long that they couldn’t fit in the mouth when it was closed, and instead protruded on each side of its lower jaw. Smilodon could open its mouth 120 degrees, about double that of modern felines, which was necessary to accommodate eating with such long teeth.

Despite popular view and imagination surrounding these long canines, they probably didn’t make Smilodon a better predator, and if anything probably was in the way for many of the hunting techniques which we know about other cats. The long canines made the Smilodon a specialized predator, as it was probably not able to catch anything smaller than itself. Its preys had to be either its size or larger. In fact, protein studies in fossils reveal that Smilodon’s meals were composed of bison, tapirs, deer, camels, horses, mammoths and mastodons, all large preys.

Modern cats have conic canines, which make them very strong and resistant. They use these canines to hold their prey, but otherwise these teeth have little role to kill or eat. Instead, their molars, the larger teeth located on each side of the mouth, have a double role, used by the cats to crush the throat of their larger preys until they suffocate and die, and to cut the meat into pieces to eat it.

Smilodon skull

Smilodon skull

On the other hand, the saber-like canines of the Smilodon were not conical, but were instead flattened. That characteristic made their canines fragile. Smilodon could not use them to catch or hold their prey, in the same manner as the modern cat, as their teeth would break. While some fossils have been found with a broken canine, these were rare. Also, much strength would have been required to push the canines within the throat of their preys. For these reasons, it is unlikely that Smilodon caught its preys at the throat like modern cats do.

To make room for the long and large canines, all of the other side teeth had to move backward and less room was left for jaw muscles. Smilodon had a weak bite, estimated to be about a third of the strength of the lion’s jaw. To compensate for this, however, Smilodon had very strong neck muscles, which could have allowed it to pull its head toward its stomach to compensate for their weak jaw. This technique might have helped Smilodon eating harder and larger preys, but could not have served for hunting.

It is thought that Smilodon did not use its teeth for hunting, and instead made use of its heavy body to catch and hold preys to the ground. Once preys were maintained immobile, Smilodon would then have been able to kill them by either stabbing or bleeding them with its canines, and possibly biting into softer parts of their bodies.

Smilodon was probably a social animal, hunting in packs, more like wolves than cats, as it is unlikely that it could have caught very large preys such as mammoth as solitary animals. Another clue is that many fossils showed broken and healed bones. A broken bone requires that an animal be immobile for several weeks or even a few months, preventing it from hunting. A solitary Smilodon would have died, but the fact that many of them healed completely indicates that other cats probably brought them food, or at least let them join their meal by crawling to it.


Smilodon was among the last few species of Machairodonts, but went extinct about 11,000 years ago, soon after the end of the last glaciation. That period also saw the extinction of most of the megafauna, the group of very large animals common around the world until then.


Spear-Tooth, the creature from the movie 10,000 BC, is loosely inspired by Smilodon

Glaciations, over the last few millions of years, have been a fairly regular occurrence, about every 10,000 to 12,000 years. It is generally accepted that this one glaciation was not the direct cause of the mass extinction which afflicted the megafauna at that time, as these animals had survived many more before. While it had been previously thought that the last glaciation was more important than the preceding ones, it is now thought that it was in fact very similar and did not make significant changes to the overall environment.

A more probable cause for the mass extinction of the megafauna would have been the major population boom of humans which occurred at the end of the glaciation. It is unlikely that humans hunted Smilodon directly, but we are known for having contributed to the extinction of mammoth through extensive hunting, and we probably hunted other large animals as well. Smilodon, being specialized for large preys, couldn’t adapt to the disappearance of the megafauna and gradually went extinct as its preys became scarce.

Part 3

In the last part of the series, we will discover how modern cats came to be and how they populated the world and imposed themselves as the leading carnivores.


8 comments on “Saber-Tooth [Prehistoric Cats – Part 2]

  1. heretherebespiders
    January 29, 2013

    It doesn’t sound as if the large canines were very useful. There must be something we’re missing?

    • Tom Duhamel
      January 29, 2013

      Exactly. We pretty much know what they couldn’t do, we don’t really know what they were used for. Smilodon have pretty much ruled its land (a large portion of the Americas) for 2.5 million years, and the family (which most members had some elongated canines) have been there for nearly 20 million years, so it worked. It was useful. We just can’t figure how.

      Must have been an interesting cat 🙂

      • heretherebespiders
        January 29, 2013

        I really want to re-create one and set it loose on a buffalo. Just so I can find out.

        • Tom Duhamel
          January 29, 2013

          The technology of Jurassic Park isn’t here. Yet.

          I spent quite some time researching this topic, and to be honest I was really disappointed to find out there wasn’t an answer to this question.

          The part about how it went extinct is another unanswered question. Human activity is currently the most popular theory, but nobody is really sure.

          • heretherebespiders
            January 29, 2013

            Seems like the die-off of their preferred large prey would be a major cause?

            • Tom Duhamel
              January 29, 2013

              Yes, yes! But we are unsure of how/why their preys died off in the first place.

              Most of the megafauna went extinct within about 1000 years of the end of the glaciation, after they went through hundreds of such glaciations before. We know that humans suddenly boomed at that time, and we know that they were hunting these large animals. So it is thought that humans probably contributed to some extend, but there is actually no evidence to back this theory.

              Furthermore, a recent studies (which I didn’t mention because it needs more research and more sources) seems to indicate that starvation is not what killed Smilodon. Instead of shedding some light, it does in fact darken the mystery.

      • seybernetx
        February 18, 2013

        Perhaps the longer canines served as a sexual signal, like a lion’s mane or the antlers on a deer? Or maybe female Smilodons just liked the longer canines. Wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened.

        Be darn hard to prove, though.

        • Tom Duhamel
          February 18, 2013

          Hi and thank you for your comment!

          Use of the tooth for courtship was indeed a theory at one point, but it was mostly dismissed because both the male and female had them. In almost all cases, traits which are used for courtship are only on one gender, or at least very prominent on only one of them. All proportions considered, these tooth were about the same size on individuals of both genders.

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This entry was posted on January 29, 2013 by in Cats, History and tagged , , , , , .
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