History Meme:
1/8 Objects » Saber-Toothed Cat fossil from the La Brea Tar Pits

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. [X] [X]
How Saberkittens Got Their Fangs - Laelaps

External image

Mother Smilodon is not amused.

by Brian Switek

Smilodon fatalis – one of the last great sabercats – was a ferocious carnivore. Gaping museum mounts are a reminder of the extinct cat’s destructive capabilities. But such menacing skeletons only offer a snapshot of predator’s life. It’s not as if Smilodon sprung from the ground fully-formed and started tearing after the nearest baby mammoth. If there were sabercats, there must have been saberkittens.

When I visited the famous La Brea asphalt seeps last year for a Smilodon story, I asked curator John Harris and collections manager Aisling Farrell if they had any young sabercats in the rows upon rows of chocolate-colored bone collected from the site. They led me to a specific tray among the racks of immaculately-cleaned Smilodon bones and, sure enough, there were skull pieces from several juvenile cats nestled against the plastic.

It was heartbreaking to think of the unwary saberkittens becoming trapped in the black ooze. If I happened across such a scene I would rush to pick up the cats, end up trapped in the tar myself, and, following anthropological convention, be named “Cat Man” when paleontologists later discovered the associated skeletons. But although the thought of helpless, tar-matted Smilodon kittens is tragic, their bones have not gone to waste. Their rare remains, and those of their older kin, are helping paleontologists understand how roly-poly Smilodon infants grew up into intimidating throat-rippers.

Like all cats, Smilodon got through life with two sets of teeth. Their first dental armaments were milk teeth, including canines that were not quite so long as their parents’ but were still flattened and saber-like. And much like kittens you may have raised yourself, little Smilodon kept their milk teeth until their adult teeth pushed the old ones out of the way. Skulls of this transition in action show the sabercat’s awkward, double-fanged teething phase.

External image

A young Smilodon with the adult canine pushing past its milk tooth. Photo by Brian Switek.

Those adult fangs came in quick. In a pair of papers, University of California paleontologist Robert Feranec looked to the teeth of adult La Brea Smilodon to estimate the growth of the famous weapons. By tracking fluctuations of carbon and oxygen isotopes, which were laid down in the enamel of the two sampled Smilodon canines as they formed, Feranec determined that those distinctive, permanent slashers grew at a rate of about 5.8mm each month over a period of 22 months. In the same amount of time it takes modern lions to grow their adult canines, Smilodon sprouted insanely-long slashers.

Despite the high rate of growth, though, 22 months was a long time for a Smilodon to be without its fully-developed cutlery. The saber teeth would have been functional before they ceased growing, of course, but many months of early growth – when their grown-up canines were pushing aside their milk fangs bit-by-bit – likely kept young Smilodon cute for a long time. An extended period of infancy and weaning, megafauna expert Ross Barnett pointed out on Twitter, might mean that saberkittens stayed adorable and playful for longer than other cats. Science has yet to ascertain how dangerous it would have been to give saberkittens chin scritches, however.

[A big hat-tip to paleontologist Ross Barnett for pointing me to Feranec’s papers.]

Related Reads:

Tracing the Roots of Smilodon
A Living Sabertooth
The Many Lives of Smilodon
Smilodon the Vampire
Q: How Do You Sex a Smilodon? A: Very Carefully


Feranec, R. 2004. Isotopic evidence of saber-tooth development, growth rate, and diet from the adult canine of Smilodon fatalis from Rancho La Brea. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 206, (3-4): 303-310

Feranec, R. 2008. Growth differences in the saber-tooth of three felid species. PALAIOS. 23: 566-569

Prowlers in the Yard!

External image

Fatalis: A Novel by Jeff Rovin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read this book twice now and without doubt the first reading was more exhilarating than the second. Not that Jeff Rovin isn’t a good action-horror writer; by all means he is. It’s just that his ‘Fatalis’ failed to bring the kind of scientific logic required to make this re-emergence of the extinct carnivore, Smilodon Fatalis aka Saber Tooth Cat theory plausible. His attempt to explain how these massive cats woke up from a forced ice age hibernating stupor after 11,000 years, was too simple for my liking; especially when I read the book the second time. His 'Cryogenics’ hypothesis was glaringly light.

However, putting the scientific logic aside and looking from purely visceral level, Fatalis does have its moments. I particularly liked Rovin’s description of the pre-historic cats’ military style hunting tactics. If it truly was the way they hunted, then these cats were more than just savage beasts but a highly evolved social group with an advanced intelligence to overturn today’s mankind dominated world should they had survived extinction. That notion is quite intriguing indeed. Nonetheless, for a species of this kind to have vanished along with the mastodon, mammoth and giant sloth, to name a few during the ice age, tells that they were mere beasts who couldn’t adapt and thus died out while man managed to survive. Therefore, Jeff Rovin’s Smilodon Fatalis was more of a pre-historic creature built on creative imagination. They were a species that at the time of writing was perhaps lesser known than we do today I reckon. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. We need imagination and Rovin brings quite a lot of that to this book.

Overall, the storyline and plotting were commendable though the characters were one dimensional; but that was okay because the central attraction were the Saber Tooth Cats and their instinctive pursuits first and foremost. All said, 'Fatalis’ was a fun book to read (twice and no more) and even though it wasn’t the spine-chilling horror as I would have liked, it kept me engrossed throughout anyway. Apart from the rather vague realism factor, the book wasn’t all that bad.

View all my reviews