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Smilodon
Smilodon populator

Smilodon

The Saber-toothed Tiger, also known as Smilodon, is the most famous mammal of the Pleistocene megafauna, a period marked by glacial cycles, along with the Wooly Mammoth. The distinguishing feature of the Saber-toothed Tiger is its two large curved canines that could measure nearly 12 inches in the larger species of Smilodon and gives it a vampire-cat appearance. Curiously, these monstrous sword-shaped fangs were surprisingly fragile and could easily break or shear during clashes, never to grow back again. Aside from its massive canines, the Smilodon is also recognizable by its robust frame: a thick neck, a broad torso and short muscular legs. This particular morphology, different from big modern cats, is due to the hunting style of this predator; the saber-toothed tiger did not need to chase its prey through endless meadows, so its silhouette evolved toward a more compact and muscular appearance.

Distant relative of lions and tigers

Smilodon fatalis
Smilodon fatalis

Although the Smilodon looks a lot like a Tiger, it wasn’t technically one. The saber-toothed tiger was more like a kind of prehistoric cat - known as the Smilodon fatalis - which was only a distant relative of modern lions, tigers and cheetahs. And although the Smilodon is by far the most popular saber-toothed cat, other dreaded species in the same genus also existed during the Cenozoic era. This cat family includes, for example, Barbourofelis, Homotherium and Megantereon, which are not really known to the public but were equally dangerous. Some Australian and South American marsupial breeds have also developed long saber-shaped canines during this time.

The least known member of the saber-toothed Tiger family is the small Smilodon gracilis who weighed only about 150 pounds, which is still big for a cat. In comparison, the largest species, the Smilodon populator of South America, could weigh up to half a ton in larger males. The Smilodon fatalis from North America weighted around 200 pounds and had a corpulence similar to that of a man of good stature.

Smilodon had a weak bite

Smilodon jaw

The saber-toothed Tigers had an almost comical bite capacity. Although these felines could open their jaws at a snake-worthy angle of 120-degrees - twice wider than a modern lion or a yawning domestic cat - they could not, however, apply a great deal of force since they had to protect their precious canines of accidental breakage. Anyway, it's a safe bet that with a 12-inch sword stuck in the back of the neck, victims of Smilodon must not have offered much resistance.

Smilodon hunted from trees

Because of its weak bite and long, frail canines, the saber-toothed tiger had to have a highly specialized hunting technique to attack its prey. As much as it is possible to deduce, the Smilodon attacked from low tree branches where it hid furtively so as not to be spotted by its victims. When the opportunity finally arose, it would leap to its prey and sink its swords into the victim’s neck or flanks before retiring at a safe distance (or perhaps even going back up in the trees) while its meal died out of its blood.

The saber-toothed tiger possibly lived in pack

Many large modern cats are pack hunters which lead paleontologists to speculate that the Smilodon possibly also lived and hunted in packs. This hypothesis seems to be confirmed by several fossil specimens that bears mark suggesting that they were in their old age and that they suffered from chronic diseases; it is rather unlikely that such vulnerable individuals could survive very long in the wilderness without assistance or protection from pack members.

Fossils in downtown Los Angeles

Fossil skeleton of Smilodon

Unlike most dinosaurs and prehistoric animals that are found in remote areas of the United States, Smilodon fossils emerge from thousands of La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles. These individuals were surely attracted by megafauna mammals already trapped in these pits and got bogged down trying to win a free meal.

Smilodon extinction

What is the cause of the disappearance of the saber-toothed tiger at the end of the last ice age? Climate change and the gradual decline of this cat's prey - such as the Wooly Mammoth - may well take the blame since the first humans had neither the intelligence nor the technology to hunt this predator down to extinction. Assuming that intact remains of DNA can be found, it may be possible to resurrect the saber-toothed tiger through a scientific program known as de-extinction.

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