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.
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 genus of prehistoric cat known as Smilodon, which was only distantly related to modern lions, tigers and cheetahs.
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 described "false" saber-toothed and "dirk-toothed" cats.
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, the males weighing as much as half a ton (in fact, Smilodon populator may have been the largest feline that ever lived). By the way, Smilodon fatalis regularly crossed paths with the Dire Wolf, Canis dirus; see this article for an analysis of this one-on-one battle!
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 has made this megafauna mammal so fascinating to generations of schoolkids 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.
5. ...but their jaws were comparatively weak.
Saber-Tooth Tigers had almost comically large bites: these felines could open their jaws at a snake-worthy angle of 120 degrees, about twice as wide as a modern lion. Paradoxically, though, the various species of Smilodon didn't chomp down with much force, because they needed to protect their precious canines against accidental breakage.
6. Saber-Tooth Tigers hunted in a characteristic way.
The large, brittle canines of the Saber-Tooth Tiger, combined with its weak jaws, point to a highly adapted 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 animal bled to death.
7. Saber-Tooth Tigers may have lived in packs.
Modern big cats are pack animals, which has tempted some paleontologists to speculate that Saber-Tooth Tigers lived in packs as well. One piece of evidence supporting this idea is that many Smilodon fossils bear evidence of old age and disease; these debilitated individuals would not 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 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 mammals; likely candidates included the Giant Sloth and various prehistoric horses.
9. ...but they weren't above scavenging the occasional meal, either.
No predator on earth 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, it was probably a combination of climate change and the disappearance of its large-sized, slow-witted prey that spelled the Saber-Tooth Tiger's doom.