Saber-Toothed Cat: A Prehistoric Kitty
When the saber-toothed cat also known as the smilodon walked the Earth, it was much cooler than it is today. Different creatures lived here at the same time such as the woolly mammoth, giant sloth, and the dire wolf. Although often referred to as a saber-toothed tiger or saber-toothed tiger, the name is misleading. This cat is not actually part of the tiger family, which is why saber-toothed cat is a more accurate name. Although, that does not mean it is anything like the house cat of today. It had teeth seven inches long and jagged like a steak knife. It weighed as much as 800 pounds. That is more than double the weight of a female African lion.
3 feet (0.9 meters)
4-5 feet (1.2 - 1.5 meters)
440 pounds (200 kilograms)
6.9 by 7.6 inches (17.6 by 19.2 centimeters)
Lost Baby Teeth
20 months old
Adult Teeth Length
11 inches (28 centimeters)
Scientists estimate 12,000 years ago
Chili, Ecuador, Peru, California, and Andes Mountains
La Brea Tar Pits
Findings from Tar Pits in Rancho La Brea
Since the last saber-toothed cat died nearly ten thousand years ago, the only things we know about the saber-toothed cat is what paleontologists learned from studying their fossils. Many of their bones were found in tar pits that are now located downtown Los Angeles, California. These tar pits are known as the Rancho La Brea tar pits. Their fossil findings are located inside a museum surrounding the area.
They first discovered bones of mammals in the tar pits in 1913. To date, 59 different kind of mammals and 135 birds have been found in the tar pits. The most common bones found in the tar pits are those of the dire wolf, which are now extinct. The second most common mammal found is the smilodon with more than two thousand saber-toothed cats being found.
Saber-toothed cats got stuck in the pits trying to attack other animals. After it rained, water would settle on top of the tar. This would cause the tar pit to look much like any other stream or lake. Mammals such as mammoths and horses would drink the water. Once they would try to move they would find that their paws were stuck in the tar pits.
The tar would act like flypaper, immobilizing even large woolly mammoths. The saber tooth not realizing there was tar beneath the water would attack a mammoth or other mammal. As they brought their prey to the ground, the saber tooth cat would get stuck as well, being trapped for thousands of years.
Though this was believed to only happen a few times each year. After 30,000 years, a few became a few thousand. There is believed to be more bones to find.
Since the only part of a saber-toothed cat that man has seen is its skeleton, we only have an educated guess as to what a saber-tooth actually looks like.
It is believed that a saber-toothed cat has a tan coat, which would have blended in with its environment. Because many lived in trees and shrubs scientists believe they are spotted like a jaguar or leopard.
What we do know is these cats were large and strong. In length they were at least five feet to seven feet long (2.2 meters) and at the shoulder were at least three feet tall. Though they were nearly the same size as a lion, they were much heavier. Some were as heavy as eight hundred eighty pounds (400 kg). They had very powerful front legs and paws with sharp retractable claws. This allowed them to jump far and high. Though because their legs were short, they were not fast runners.
With short tails, like a bobcat, they most likely hid behind bushes then leaped out at their prey. Many cats rely on their tails for balance and an ability to change direction quickly, which supports the theory that a saber tooth cat was not a quick runner. Though it is believed they could run about as fast as a medium bear, which is around 30 miles per hour.
They have small throat bones much like a lions. It is believed they must roar. Like most cats, they had whiskers. This was discovered because scientists found canals in their skull, which resemble that of modern cats. These canals allow whiskers to penetrate nerves inside the skull to tell the cat how close they are to another object.
Though their size is very impressive, they were not giants. Their most notable trait was actually their canine teeth, which portrayed their ferociousness.
With teeth seven inches long and as sharp as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, they were a fierce predator. Their teeth curved much like a saber or arched sword. Their long teeth were jagged like a serrated knife. Cubs are born without these long teeth and resemble a baby lion. They do not usually have full grown canine teeth till six months of age when they are considered adults and begin hunting on their own.
Despite the teeth’s vicious appearance, they are very fragile. It is not sure how the teeth are used, since many cats bite at the neck of their prey. Since the neck has many bones that could break their fragile teeth.
It is believed that saber-toothed cats latch onto their prey with their strong legs and sink their claws into the sides of the animal. Once the animal falls to the ground, the saber tooth stabs the cat through the abdomen or front of neck where few bones are, causing their prey to bleed heavily.
Most plant-eating animals were too quick for the saber-toothed cat; therefore it is unknown for sure what their main victim was. Though they could have brought down a mammoth the size of an elephant, their main prey was their weight or smaller. Which meant their main diet consisted of horses, young bison, antelope and young mammoths.
How It Became Extinct
No one knows why the saber-toothed cat became extinct. There are three theories as to what killed these animals’ humans, climate, and disease.
Though it is very doubtful humans killed these ferocious animals, we may have hunted and eaten most of their prey, causing them to have limited food source. Their food source may also have been limited due to climate changes. Plus they may have not been able to survive in the warmth after the ice age. It is also believed that disease killed the saber tooth cat.
What is known is ten thousand years ago two thirds of animals that lived in North America died out after the Ice Age ended. No one knows why.
Though there is much about the saber-toothed cat that is left to guesswork, we have learned a lot from studying its bones. The biggest mystery that the cat has left behind is its sudden disappearance off the earth. Today, it is feared that many large cats that are still left on the earth may follow in its footsteps, as it is found that most large cats are endangered.
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Matthews, Rupert. Gone Forever! Sabretooth. Heineman Library: Chicago, Illinois: 2003.
Turner, Alan. National Geographic: Prehistoric Mammals. Firecrest Book Ltd.: Washington DC: 2004.
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz