How Saber-tooth Cats Worked

By: Tracy V. Wilson  | 
Smilodon fatalis, the saber-tooth cat: a little like a tiger and a little like a bear. See more pictures of big cats.
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It's easy to imagine that saber-toothed cats hunted the way today's tigers do -- after all, many people call the extinct felines "saber-toothed tigers." Tigers hunt alone, waiting until twilight and using vegetation or patches of light and shadow to hide themselves. A tiger will stalk its prey until it's close enough to strike in a couple of quick leaps. The kill comes when the tiger bites through the back of its victim's neck and severs the spinal cord. Tigers can also strangle their prey with a long-lasting bite to the throat.

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But in spite of their popular -- and incorrect -- nickname, saber-toothed cats weren't really tigers. The most well-known of the extinct felines, Smilodon fatalis, shared some physical traits and hunting patterns with tigers. But saber-toothed cats may have been social animals, like today's lions. In this article, we'll explore the anatomy and social hierarchy of the Smilodon fatalis, while piecing together the mystery of why they went extinct.

Today's big cats have long canines, too -- but they're tiny compared to the elongated teeth of a saber-tooth.
Natphotos/Getty Images


The Canine Shear Bite of the Smilodon Predator

Many Smilodon specimens had the sheer physical bulk of bears. This adds up to a stalk-and-pounce hunter that was powerful enough to knock prehistoric bison off their feet. The oversized teeth of the saber-toothed cat were weapons, but their jaws weren't built for strangulation or crunching through spines.

Instead, these cats used their canine teeth for slicing and ripping the softest parts of a prey animal -- their throats and abdomens. Most likely, saber-toothed cats' prey died slowly from loss of blood rather than quickly from strangulation or a broken neck. Needless to say, this likelihood has helped the saber-toothed tiger develop an intense reputation, despite having gone extinct.


In talking about saber-toothed cats, it's important to make a few things clear. One is that there were lots of carnivores with long teeth that lived during various periods of the Earth's history. These animals varied in shape and size, and so did their most notable trait -- their teeth. Even among the Smilodon genus, there were three distinct species -- Smilodon fatalis, Smilodon gracilis, and Smilodon populator -- that lived in North and South America.

For the purpose of this article, we'll talk primarily about the Smilodon fatalis, which became extinct at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. We'll start with a look at the anatomy of these big cats, as recorded in the fossil record. Then we'll look at how scientists have interpreted these Smilodon fossils to learn about how saber-toothed cats lived and behaved.


Saber-tooth Anatomy

Tom Tietz/Getty Images

Saber Teeth

Naturally, the saber-toothed cat is known for its distinctive teeth -- two very long canines that extended well past the lower jaw. These saber teeth evolved to be twice as thick from front to back as from side to side, so they resembled very thick, somewhat curved knife blades. In Smilodon fatalis, adults' saber teeth could measure up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) long. That's about as long as the average man's hand from the wrist to the end of the middle finger.

But the cats' teeth weren't always so big. The "saber-toothed tiger" had deciduous baby teeth, just like people and many other mammals do. The cats lost their baby teeth, including a set of miniature saber canines, before they entered adolescence. In order to reach the necessary length, their adult canines grew at a rate of about 8 millimeters a month for more than 18 months. Today's tigers' teeth grow about this fast, but the canines of saber-toothed cats grew for a longer period of time than tiger teeth do.


The sheer size of these canines can make it seem like eating or attacking prey would be a problem. But saber-toothed cats had the ability to open their mouths very wide to make up for the extreme length of their teeth. Smilodon fatalis could open its mouth up to 120 degrees wide. This let the cats take big bites, although, according to computerized tomography (CT) scans, they used those big bites for soft flesh, not thick bones.

The cats' skulls weren't designed to handle the pressure of biting through bone. They also weren't designed to provide anchors for the amount of muscle needed to hang on to struggling prey for a long time. That's one reason why saber-toothed cats tended to aim for the throat or abdomen instead of the bonier parts of their prey.

Body Length and Killing Behavior

Imagine a bulked-up lion that's lost its tail and been slightly compressed from head to rear and foot to shoulder, and you've got a pretty good idea of what the Smilodon's body was shaped like. Its color is a whole other matter, though. So far, paleontologists haven't found any fossil remains of skin or fur, so there's no solid evidence of their coloring.

However, based on analysis of plant fossils from the last ice age, many paleontologists believe that Smilodon fatalis had the dappled coat of a cheetah or bobcat. This coloring would have helped the cat blend in with the vegetation that was common at the time.

Fossilized bones have also offered some clues about how saber-toothed cats hunted. As previously discussed, due to variations in thickness, the cats' saber teeth were stronger from front to back than side to side. This meant that their teeth easily could have been broken while trying to subdue struggling prey. However, since there aren't many broken saber teeth in the fossil record, it's likely that the cats killed through slashing and stabbing, rather than holding on to struggling prey.


An Early Ancestor to the American Lion?

What the saber-toothed cat lacked in jaw strength it made up in physical bulk and power. These carnivores were like sturdy, squat versions of modern lions. Their legs and bodies were short and powerful, and they had a lot of muscle mass, causing them to weigh a lot more than the average lion. While a lion might weigh up to 500 pounds (227 kilograms), a saber-toothed tiger weighed between 600 and 750 pounds (272 and 340 kilograms).

Smilodon fatalis also lacked the long tail that today's lions use for balance. This may have made saber-tooth cats stronger but less agile than most of today's big cats. The lack of a long tail is also one reason why scientists don't call them saber-toothed tigers or saber-toothed lions.


Smilodon fossils have also given paleontologists a few ideas on how saber-tooth cats lived and behaved. We'll look at the evidence for a social structure among saber-tooths -- and arguments that they were solitary -- in the next section.

Was the Smilodon a Social Creature?

Fossilized bones of saber-toothed cats are a primary source of information about how they may have behaved.
Glenn Frank/iStockphoto

It's hard to know exactly how saber-toothed cats behaved because none are alive today. Paleontologists use two primary sources of information to draw conclusions about the cats' lives: the fossil record, and the behavior of today's big cats, which are Smilodon's closest living relatives.

Evidence in the fossil record suggests that the cats may have had a social structure. Some fossils show evidence of serious injuries, like broken bones and dislocated hips. However, the fossils also show that these injuries had time to heal, or that the cats lived with them for a long time. Such injuries probably would have been fatal for solitary hunters. For this reason, some paleontologists suspect that healthy cats either actively provided injured Smilodon with food or did not stop them from picking over freshly killed carcasses.


Not all researchers agree with this conclusion. Some argue that dehydration would have been a much bigger threat to injured animals than starvation, and there's no practical way for one cat to carry water to another. According to this theory, the cats may have lived off of stored fuel, like fats and proteins, while they allowed their injuries to heal.

Smilodon fatalis is probably the best-known Smilodon in history, particularly in North America and western South America, where it lived. But it wasn't the only cat, or the only mammal, with saber teeth. Next, we'll look at some of the other saber-toothed cats that have lived on Earth.


Other Saber-toothed Cats in History

Thylacosmilus, a saber-tooth marsupial
Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

There are several reasons why many people think of the Smilodon genus when they think about saber-toothed cats, even if they're not familiar with the scientific name. One is the wealth of Smilodon fossils, which has given scientists and museums lots of material for study. Most of these fossils were found in the Rancho La Brea tar pits in California.

As it happens, Smilodon Californicus are one of the most common mammal fossils found in this naturally-occurring tar. However, in spite of the wealth of saber-toothed fossils found there, entrapment in the tar wasn't all that common. The Rancho La Brea Smilodon fossils accumulated over about 25,000 years.


Another genus of saber-toothed cat lived at the same time as the Smilodon variety. These were the Homotherium cats, which had shorter, flatter teeth. Some paleontologists describe them as scimitar cats. These cats had a slightly larger range than the Smilodon genus. Homotherium cats lived in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. They became extinct about 11,500 years ago.

Researchers have found perhaps the earliest species of saber-toothed cats in several clay-lined caves near Madrid, Spain. Like the La Brea tar pits, these caves have provided scientists with lots of well-preserved fossil samples. The cats found there are from the genus Paramachairodus -- oldest genus of saber-tooth cats on the planet -- and the genus Machairodus. These were large cats, but their teeth were shorter than those of the Smilodon genus. These Smilodon lived around 9 million years ago.


How Did These Majestic Killers Go Extinct?

Smilodon cats are well known because they're the saber-toothed animals that lived on Earth most recently. They shared the planet with other familiar ice-age mammals like woolly mammoths, mastodons and ground sloths. All these animals were extinct by about 10,000 years ago due to a number of factors, including climate change, terrain change, and human hunting.

The Smilodon cats most likely became extinct because their primary source of food -- mammals that were larger than the cats themselves -- died out. The cats weren't fast or agile enough to catch smaller prey, leading to their eventual extinction.


Few Living Examples of Saber Teeth Remain

Even though a walrus's canines are distinctively long, they're known as tusks,
James Balog/Getty Images

These are just a few of the many extinct large carnivores that have evolved saber teeth. There are no saber-toothed tigers alive today, but there are still a few animals with dramatically long canine teeth.

One example is the walrus, which uses its long tusks for everything from social displays to moving on ice. But although these are modified canines, they aren't quite the same as saber teeth because they're rounded rather than flattened from side to side. However, as living species go, they may be the closest thing you'll see to a pair of saber teeth.


Follow the links on the next page to find lots more resources on saber-tooth cats, fossils, dinosaurs and other extinct animals.

Saber-toothed Cat Summary

Anatomy Summary

Smilodon, which are commonly yet improperly referred to as saber-toothed tigers, weighed up to 750 pounds and were built like compact lions. There are many different types of saber-toothed cats, and they existed in different time periods. Some Smilodon lived 9 million years ago, while others lived on Earth up to the last ice age, which was 10,000 years ago.

The more recent saber-toothed cats became extinct due to a loss of available prey. After the mastodons and other large mammals died out, there wasn't enough food to support them because they weren't fast enough to hunt the smaller animals.


Saber-toothed cats had very pronounced canines, which they used for ripping and slicing the throats and abdomens of their prey. Even though their canines were massive and intimidating, their jaws weren't strong enough to bite through bones. So, the cats had to use their canines like knives as opposed to crushing the spines of their prey.

Behavior Summary

There are differing views regarding the Smilodon's social behavior, and, because they are now extinct, we may never know the truth. Some paleontologists believe that they were social cats that hunted in packs, while others believed them to be solitary stalkers of prey.

Scientists have found Smilodon fossils that displayed serious injuries, though the injuries appeared to have healed over time. Many scientists believe that such fossils could not exist unless healthy saber-tooth cats looked after the injured ones. However, other scientists believe that those fossils came from cats that lived off stored fats and proteins while their injuries healed.

Top 5 Saber-toothed Cat Facts

  1. Saber-tooth cats' canines grew up to 7 inches long.

­­­­­Learn more about saber-tooth anatomy.

  1. Saber-tooth cats did not have long tails like lions, which means that their balance would have been substantially worse.

Learn more about saber-tooth anatomy.

  1. Saber-tooth cats fed on large, slow, ice-age mammals.

Learn more about how saber-tooth cats worked.

  1. Saber-tooth cats may have been more closely-related to lions than tigers.

Learn more about how saber-tooth cats worked.

  1. Saber-tooth cat fossils are among the most common mammal fossils found in the Rancho La Brea tar pits in California.

­Click here to learn about the fossil evidence which indicates that there may have been social saber-tooths.



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