Science, Tech, Math › Animals & Nature Top 10 Saber-Toothed Tiger Facts Share Flipboard Email Print Ryan Somma / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 Animals & Nature Dinosaurs Prehistoric Mammals Basics Paleontologists Carnivores Dinosaurs & Birds Herbivores Marine Reptiles Amphibians Birds Habitat Profiles Mammals Reptiles Wildlife Conservation Insects Marine Life Forestry Evolution View More By Bob Strauss Science Writer B.S., Cornell University Bob Strauss is a science writer and the author of several books, including "The Big Book of What, How and Why" and "A Field Guide to the Dinosaurs of North America." our editorial process Bob Strauss Updated July 03, 2019 Along with the woolly mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger was one of the most famous megafauna of the Pleistocene epoch. Did you know that this fearsome predator was only remotely related to modern tigers, or that its canines were as brittle as they were long? 01 of 10 Not Quite a Tiger Brocken Inaglory / Mbz1 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5 All modern tigers are subspecies of Panthera tigris (for example, the Siberian tiger is technically known by the genus and species name Panthera tigris altaica). What most people refer to as the saber-toothed tiger was actually a species of prehistoric cat known as Smilodon fatalis, which was only distantly related to modern lions, tigers, and cheetahs. 02 of 10 Saber-Toothed Cats Besides Smilodon Frank Wouter / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 Although smilodon is by far the most famous saber-toothed cat, it wasn't the only member of its fearsome breed during the Cenozoic Era: this family included over a dozen genera, including barbourofelis, homotherium, and megantereon. Further complicating matters, paleontologists have identified "false" saber-toothed and "dirk-toothed" cats, which had their own uniquely shaped canines, and even some South American and Australian marsupials developed saber-tooth-like features. 03 of 10 3 Separate Species in the Smilodon Genus Robert Bruce Horsfall / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain The most obscure member of the smilodon family was the small (only 150 pounds or so) Smilodon gracilis; the North American Smilodon fatalis (what most people mean when they say saber-toothed tiger) was slightly bigger at 200 or so pounds, and the South American Smilodon populator was the most imposing species of them all, with males weighing as much as half a ton. We know that Smilodon fatalis regularly crossed paths with the dire wolf. 04 of 10 Foot-Long Canines James St. John / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 No one would be much interested in the saber-toothed tiger if it were just an unusually big cat. What makes this megafauna mammal truly worthy of attention 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, never to grow back again. (It's not like there were any dentists on hand in Pleistocene North America!) 05 of 10 Weak Jaws Peter Halasz / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 Saber-toothed tigers had almost comically capacious bites: these felines could open their jaws to a snake-worthy angle of 120 degrees, or about twice as wide as a modern lion (or a yawning house cat). Paradoxically, though, the various species of smilodon couldn't bite down on their prey with much force, because (per the previous slide) they needed to protect their precious canines against accidental breakage. 06 of 10 Saber-Tooth Tigers Liked to Pounce from Trees stu_spivack / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 The long, brittle canines of the saber-toothed 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, plunged its "sabers" deep into the neck or flank of its unfortunate victim, and then withdrew to a safe distance (or perhaps back into the comfy environs of its tree) as the wounded animal flopped around and eventually bled to death. 07 of 10 Possible Pack Animals Corey Ford / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images Many modern big cats are pack animals, which has tempted paleontologists to speculate that saber-toothed tigers lived (if not hunted) in packs as well. One piece of evidence supporting this premise 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 in the wild without assistance, or at least protection, from other pack members. 08 of 10 La Brea Tar Pits Contain the Fossil Record Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5 Most dinosaurs and prehistoric animals are discovered in remote areas of the U.S., but not the saber-toothed tiger, specimens of which have been recovered by the thousands from the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles. Most likely, these Smilodon fatalis individuals were attracted to megafauna mammals already stuck in the tar and became mired hopelessly themselves in their attempt to score a free (and supposedly easy) meal. 09 of 10 An Stocky Build Compared to Modern Felines Vitor Silva / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images Aside from its massive canines, there's an easy way to distinguish the saber-toothed tiger from a modern big cat. The build of smilodon was comparatively robust, including a thick neck, a broad chest, and short, well-muscled legs. This had a lot to do with this Pleistocene predator's lifestyle; since smilodon didn't have to pursue its prey across endless grasslands, only jump on it from the low branches of trees, it was free to evolve in a more compact direction. 10 of 10 Extinct for 10,000 Years Javier Conles / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 Why did this saber-toothed cat vanish off the face of the earth toward the end of the last Ice Age? It's unlikely that early humans had either the smarts or the technology to hunt Smilodon to extinction; rather, you can blame a combination of climate change and the gradual disappearance of this cat's large-sized, slow-witted prey. Assuming scraps of its intact DNA can be recovered, it may yet be possible to resurrect this kitty under the scientific program known as de-extinction.