How Saber-tooth Cats Worked

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-tooth cats hunted the way today's tigers do -- after all, many people call the extinct felines "saber-tooth 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-tooth 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-tooth cats may have been social animals, like today's lions. Many saber-tooth species also had the sheer physical bulk of bears.

Today's big cats have long canines, too -- but they're tiny compared to the elongated teeth of a saber-tooth.
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This adds up to a stalk-and-pounce hunter that was powerful enough to knock prehistoric bison off their feet. The cats' oversized teeth were weapons, but their jaws weren't built for strangulation or crunching through spines. Instead, these cats used their canines for slicing and ripping the softest parts for their prey -- their throats and abdomens. Most likely, saber-tooth cats' prey died slowly from loss of blood rather than quickly from strangulation or a broken neck.

In talking about saber-tooth 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. For the purpose of this article, we'll talk primarily about one member of the Smilodon genus: 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 fossils to learn about how saber-tooth cats lived and behaved.