How Saber-tooth Cats Worked

Social Saber-tooths

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

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

As we discussed in the last section, fossilized bones have offered some clues about how saber-tooth cats hunted. Because of their stocky, powerful bodies, they were probably better at knocking animals down than chasing them over long distances. The shape of the cats' teeth also supports the theory that they ripped through the throats or abdomens of their prey, leading to death through loss of blood. Because of the 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, 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.

Evidence in the fossil record also suggests that the cats may have had a social structure. Some saber-tooth cat fossils have 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 cats with food or did not stop them from picking over freshly killed carcasses.

But 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 saber-tooth cat in history, particularly in the Western hemisphere, 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 animals with giant canines that have lived on Earth.