Top 10 Saber-Toothed Tiger Facts

The skeleton of a saber-toothed tiger, also known as smilodon

Ryan Somma / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

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
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Not Quite a Tiger

A siberian tiger gracefully steps through tree branches

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
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Saber-Toothed Cats Besides Smilodon

A stuffed approximation of Megantereon cultridens , another genus of saber-toothed cat​

 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
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3 Separate Species in the Smilodon Genus

Sabre toothed tiger faces off with a direwolf over a meal

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
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Foot-Long Canines

Smilodon californicus skeleton preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits

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
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Weak Jaws

The giant span of a smilodon's 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
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Saber-Tooth Tigers Liked to Pounce from Trees

Smilodon skeleton on a tree

 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
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Possible Pack Animals

An artistic rendering of a pack of smilodons taking on a herd of mammoths

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
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La Brea Tar Pits Contain the Fossil Record

A bubble reaches the surface at the La Brea tar pits

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
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An Stocky Build Compared to Modern Felines

The relative sizes of ancient big cats compared to the modern tiger. From left to right: Panthera leo atrox, Smilodon populator, Panthera tigris acutidens, Panthera leo spelaea and Panthera tigris altaica (the modern siberian tiger)

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
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Extinct for 10,000 Years

Smilodon populator, the largest smilodon species

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.