Temporal range: Early Pleistocene – Early Holocene
|An artist's interpretation of Smilodon populator|
First things first, although Smilodon is referred to as a sabre-tooth tiger by most people, this prehistoric mammal wasn't a true tiger at all, belonging instead to a long extinct group of cats known as the Machairodonts. Smilodon was a large and muscular predator that may have well snacked on early humans as well as prehistoric Bison, giant prehistoric camels, and the Woolly Mammoths while it was in North America and Giant Ground Sloths, Toxodonts, Glyptodonts and Macrauchenia in South America from the Pliocene and Pleistocene.
Smilodon-like other sabre-toothed cats (and dirk-toothed cats and scimitar-toothed cats as well), Smilodon would leap on its prey suddenly out of the pampas grass, digging its huge canines into the unfortunate animal's neck and then withdrawing to a safe distance while its dinner bled to death like some modern big cats. It's unknown whether Smilodon hunted in packs, though that would have certainly helped it take down massive herbivores such as Bison antiquus and Camelops while it was in North America and Macrauchenia, Toxodon, and the giant prehistoric ground sloths when it migrated to South America.
In case you're wondering why Smilodon has appeared in so many movies, that may be because thousands of intact Smilodon skeletons have been extracted from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a stone's throw from Hollywood (the California variant of this genus, Smilodon californicus, is the official state fossil). By the way, the last specimen of Smilodon went extinct only 10,000 years ago; by then, primitive humans had figured out how to hunt co-operatively and killed off this dangerous creature once and for all. It also didn't hurt that these humans also hunted to extinction the giant, herbivorous megafauna that Smilodon preyed on.
S. gracilis is the smallest species at about a metre long and ancestral to Megantereon. S. gracilis took part in the Great American Exchange where it gave rise to S.populator, the largest species, was 3 metres long and the third species S.fatalis was intermediate in size between the two species and was from originally from North America then it migrated to South America.
AnatomySmilodon was the largest sabre-tooth cat (popularly known as the sabre tooth tiger). Smilodon was a fierce predator about 3 metres long and 1.05 metres tall. Smilodon species weighed anywhere from 110 (Gracilis)–400 (populator) kg. Smilodon was a bit bigger than a modern-day lion (Panthera leo), but much heavier. Smilodon had relatively short, muscular legs and a short, bobbed tail a bit like that of a modern day Bobcat. Smilodon's front legs were especially powerful and its body was adapted for springing onto prey, but it was not a very fast runner and could not be adapted for chasing after fast running prey like deer. It could hunt some slower animals such as Macrauchenia, Toxodon, some subspecies of Mammoths, and Ground Sloths.
Its 31 cm skull had 2 huge sabre-like canine teeth and these were serrated and oval in cross-section. Many Smilodon fossils have been found with broken canines; a fossil wolf was found with a Smilodon tooth fragment embedded in its skull. Smilodon had powerful jaws that opened to 120 degrees while on the other hand, today's lions can only open their jaws at 65 degrees. Smilodon also had strong jaw and neck muscles that let it stab prey with its deadly maxillary canine sabre teeth. Its front incisor teeth may also have been used to rip away strips of flesh from the bones of its prey. But compared the other big cats this species jaw force is weaker. Its unknown if the Smilodon could hunt after lost its teeth but several paleontologists and biologists suggest ıt could be fatal for the big cat but some fossils of Smilodon have been found with healed wounds that the injured cat was getting food from an external source which gives credit to it possibly living in packs like modern lions.
PaleobiologyIts very unclear how this feline lived; several paleontologists suggested the smilodon was a very territorial animal because of high competition on food and territory; lived solitary much like leopards and jaguars like our time from same reasons. The proof of this could be there are no smilodon pride fossils found so far.
But other paleontologists suggest its reverse because of the same reasons; high competition and several other hostile species like Arctodus, dire wolves and the American lion made Smilodon live in pride-like social units. Because of the lions are the only species of felines who do live in social groups; this seems very unlikely. But there is 'accepted' proof for this behavior too: several Smilodon skeletons found in the famous La Brea tar pits
RangeSmilodon evolved and most commonly lived in North America. When, in the Pliocene, North and South America finally came together and formed a land bridge, Smilodon were a part of the Great American Exchange: they came to South America from North America and became one of the apex predators there, seemingly driving the terror birds and sparassodonts to extinction
Its still unknown what caused the extinction of this species. Probably not just because of one reason but because of combination of several, including the appearance of humans in the New World, the new diseases In South America and the climate change that caused the megafauna to die out.
In the Media
- The Fifth episode of Walking with Beasts.
- Wild New World aka Prehistoric America.
- Ice Age Giants.
- See Smilodon/Gallery