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10 Facts About the Saber-Tooth Tiger

Everything You Need to Know About Smilodon and Other Saber-Toothed Cats



Smilodon, commonly known as the Saber-Tooth Tiger (Wikimedia Commons)

saber tooth tiger smilodon

The Saber-Tooth Tiger's canines were actually quite brittle, and often broke off during close combat (Wikimedia Commons)

Along with the Woolly Mammoth, the Saber-Tooth Tiger (one of three species of cats belonging to the genus Smilodon) was the most famous prehistoric mammal of the Pleistocene epoch. Here are 10 facts you may or may not have known about this fearsome predator. (While you're here, be sure to "like" the Facebook page Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life!)

1. The Saber-Tooth Tiger wasn't really a tiger...

All modern tigers are subspecies of Panthera tigris (for example, the Siberian Tiger is technically known as Panthera tigris altaica). What most people refer to as the Saber-Tooth Tiger was actually a species of prehistoric cat known as Smilodon fatalis, which was only distantly related to modern lions, tigers and cheetahs. (See 10 Recently Extinct Big Cats)

2. ...and it wasn't the only "saber-toothed" cat, either.

Although Smilodon is by far the most famous saber-toothed cat, it wasn't the only member of its fearsome breed: this family included over a dozen other genera, including Barbourofelis, Homotherium and Megantereon. Further complicating matters, paleontologists have also identified "false" saber-toothed and "dirk-toothed" cats. (See Saber-Toothed Cats - The Tigers of the Prehistoric Plains)

3. The Saber-Tooth Tiger comprised three distinct species.

The most obscure member of the Smilodon family was the small (only 150 pounds or so) Smilodon gracilis; the North American Smilodon fatalis was slightly bigger, and the South American Smilodon populator was the most imposing Saber-Tooth of them all, males weighing as much as half a ton. Smilodon fatalis regularly crossed paths with the Dire Wolf; see The Dire Wolf vs. The Saber-Tooth Tiger - Who Wins?

4. The canines of the biggest Saber-Tooth Tigers were almost a foot long...

No one would be much interested in the Saber-Tooth Tiger if it were just an unusually big cat. What makes this megafauna mammal so fascinating is its huge, curving canines, which measured close to 12 inches in the largest Smilodon species. Oddly enough, though, these monstrous teeth were surprisingly brittle and easily broken, and were often sheared off entirely during close combat.

5. ...but their jaws were comparatively weak.

Saber-Tooth Tigers had almost comically copious bites: these felines could open their jaws at a snake-worthy angle of 120 degrees, or about twice as wide as a modern lion. Paradoxically, though, the various species of Smilodon didn't chomp down on their prey with much force, because (per the item above) they needed to protect their precious canines against accidental breakage.

6. Saber-Tooth Tigers hunted in a characteristic fashion.

The large, brittle canines of the Saber-Tooth Tiger, combined with its weak jaws, point to a highly specialized hunting style. As far as paleontologists can tell, Smilodon pounced on its prey from the low branches of trees, dug its "sabers" into the neck of its unfortunate victim, and then withdrew to a safe distance as the wounded animal flopped around and eventually bled to death.

7. Saber-Tooth Tigers may have lived in packs.

Most modern big cats are pack animals, which has tempted paleontologists to speculate that Saber-Tooth Tigers lived in packs as well. One piece of evidence supporting this idea is that many Smilodon fossil specimens bear evidence of old age and chronic disease; it's unlikely that these debilitated individuals would have been able to survive without assistance from other pack members.

8. Saber-Tooth Tigers probably preyed on juveniles...

Despite their imposing bulk, Saber-Tooth Tigers (even when hunting in packs) wouldn't have been capable of taking down full-grown Woolly Mammoths. Just like modern tigers, Smilodon scored most of its meals by picking off the smaller, slower juveniles of large, herbivorous, herding mammals; the most likely candidates included the Giant Sloth and various prehistoric horses.

9. ...but they weren't above scavenging the occasional meal, either.

No predator worth its foot-long canines would turn up its nose at the carcass of a recently deceased animal--whether that victim met its end from old age, disease, or an attack by another carnivore. Compared to modern big cats, Saber-Tooth Tigers had unusually thick, slow, stocky builds, which would have made a "free" dinner an especially appealing prospect.

10. The Saber-Tooth Tiger went extinct 10,000 years ago.

Why did the Saber-Tooth Tiger vanish off the face of the earth at the end of the last Ice Age? It's unlikely that early humans hunted Smilodon to extinction; rather, you can blame a combination of climate change and the disappearance of this cat's large-sized, slow-witted prey. (It may yet be possible to resurrect the Saber-Tooth Tiger, under the scientific program known as de-extinction.)

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