If you asked Americans to name two extinct animals that lived after the dinosaurs died out, there is little doubt the two most common answers would be the woolly mammoth and the subject of today’s blog, the saber-tooth “cat” Smilodon. Both went extinct around the end of the Pleistocene epoch, which also marked the end of the most recent ice age, roughly 11,000 years ago.
Smilodon, La Brea Tar Pits Museum, Los Angeles, CA
The saber-tooth, often referred to as a “saber-tooth tiger” or “saber-tooth cat” was not actually related to tigers or any other modern species of cat, so both names are misnomers. But it certainly was a carnivorous mammal that was shaped like modern felines, and the name “saber-tooth cat” is still commonly used. One of several prehistoric North American saber-tooths, the Smilodon is the best known thanks to an abundance of fossils found at the La Brea Tar Pits in California. Hundreds of Smilodon specimens have been recovered there, and they can be seen today in museums around the world. They are easy to spot: the bones recovered from the tar pits are typically stained dark brown from the asphalt which is very difficult to remove. Smilodon is the most studied of the saber-tooths, and we have learned a lot about this fascinating animal over the past hundred years or so.
Despite its historical connection to California, where it is the state fossil, Smilodon was actually first discovered in Brazil, and named way back in 1842. Several species have been identified; two of the North American species were named by famous paleontologists Joseph Leidy and Edward Drinker Cope. Until the discovery of the tar pits at Rancho La Brea, Smilodon was just another of a dozen or so prehistoric saber-tooth “cats” that had lived in North America going back nearly 40 million years.
Smilodon was a very large animal, slightly larger and stronger than a modern lion or tiger. Its most recognizable feature was obviously its huge canine teeth, which served to puncture the rough skin of the large mammals that Smilodon preyed upon. These teeth grew to sizes approaching a foot long, the longest is about 11 inches. Interestingly, saber teeth evolved separately in different animal families many times throughout prehistory.
Smilodon is thought to have been an ambush predator, built for physical battles with large but relatively slow animals such as bison, glyptodonts, camels, and even mammoths. While it was certainly a capable runner, it was not built for sustained running at high speed. Therefore it is presumed that its hunting style was probably more like a modern leopard than a modern lion.
Smilodon’s extinction coincided with that of many other large megafauna during the late Pleistocene. It is not known if Smilodon was unable to adapt to the new abundance of smaller, faster herbivores such as deer and pronhorns, or if it was outcompeted for food by smaller, more intelligent carnivores. It is also possible that Smilodon was hunted to extinction by humans, who had moved into both North and South America by 11,000 years ago. While there has been recent talk about the possibility of scientists bringing back a woolly mammoth using ancient DNA, I have not heard anyone suggest bringing back a Smilodon. Judging by the look of this fearsome animal, that is probably for the best!