10 Facts About the Saber-Tooth Tiger

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How Much Do You Know About Smilodon and Other Saber-Toothed Cats?

The Saber-Tooth Tiger, aka Smilodon. Ryan Somma via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Along with the Woolly Mammoth, the Saber-Tooth Tiger was one of the most famous megafauna mammals of the Pleistocene epoch. But 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? On the following slides, you'll discover 10 fascinating facts about the Saber-Tooth Tiger.

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The Saber-Tooth Tiger Wasn't Technically a Tiger

siberian tiger
The Siberian Tiger. Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

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-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 also 10 Recently Extinct Big Cats and a gallery of saber-toothed cat pictures.)

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Smilodon Wasn't the Only Saber-Toothed Cat

Megantereon, another genus of saber-toothed cat. Frank Wouters via 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. (See Saber-Toothed Cats - The Tigers of the Prehistoric Plains.) 

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The Genus Smilodon Comprised Three Separate Species

Smilodon populator, the largest Smilodon species. Javier Conles via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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-Tooth Tiger) was slightly bigger at 200 or so pounds, and the South American Smilodon populator was the most imposing species of them all, the males weighing as much as half a ton. We know that Smilodon fatalis regularly crossed paths with the Dire Wolf; see The Dire Wolf vs. The Saber-Tooth Tiger - Who Wins?

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The Saber-Tooth Tiger's Canines Were Almost a Foot Long

James St. John via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

No one would be much interested in the Saber-Tooth 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 (and it's not like there were any dentists on hand in Pleistocene North America!)

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The Jaws of the Saber-Tooth Tiger Were Surprisingly Weak

Pengo, Coluberssymbol via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Saber-Tooth 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.

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Saber-Tooth Tigers Liked to Pounce from Trees

stu_spivack via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

The long, 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, 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.

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Saber-Tooth Tigers May Have Lived in Packs

smilodon Ice Age
20th Century Fox

Many modern big cats are pack animals, which has tempted paleontologists to speculate that Saber-Tooth 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.

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The La Brea Tar Pits Are a Rich Source of Smilodon Fossils

la brea tar pits
Daniel Schwen via 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-Tooth 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.

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The Saber-Tooth Tiger Had an Unusually Stocky Build

Dantheman9758 via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 3.0]

Aside from its massive canines, there's an easy way to distinguish the Saber-Tooth 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.

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The Saber-Tooth Tiger Went Extinct 10,000 Years Ago

Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Why did the Saber-Tooth Tiger 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 the Saber-Tooth Tiger, under the scientific program known as de-extinction.)