Saber-toothed cats


photograph from the Smithsonian Photo library, copyright 1993, Smithsonian Institution, used with permission.

Saber-toothed cats are some of the best known and most popular of all Ice Age animals. They are among the most impressive carnivores ever to have lived.

Two different types of saber-toothed cats lived in the midwestern U.S. at the end of the last Ice Age. One type was the familiar sabertooth, represented by the genus Smilodon. These cats had enlarged canines usually associated with the name sabertooth. Their canines were up to 18 centimeters (7 inches) long. A mounted skeleton of Smilodon fatalis is shown in the above photograph.

The second type was the less familiar scimitar cat, represented by the genus Homotherium. Scimitar cats had shorter (only about 10 centimeters [4 inches] long) and flatter canines. Some of the differences can be seen in comparing this drawing of a scimitar cat skull to the skull in the reconstruction above.

Scimitar Cat Skull

drawing by Doris Tischler

This drawing shows a lateral view of a skull of a scimitar cat. The skull, from a cave near San Antonio, Texas, is in the collection of the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin.

This drawing is from a recent Illinois State Museum publication on the bones and behavior of scimitar cats by Viola Rawn-Schatzinger.

The enlarged upper canines are one of the most dramatic features of this group of cats. The way in which the animals used these canines has been debated since the 1880s when Smilodon was first described. One possible use is as a weapon for killing prey. If this is the case, the canines were probably used for a shearing bite to the throat or abdomen of large prey (see for example Akersten, 1985). Another possible use was as a social display structure (like most horns and antlers). If this is the case, it would support the idea that sabertooths were social animals.

Both the sabertooth and scimitar cat were about the size of the modern African lion (Panthera leo). However, each differed anatomically from the lion.

The sabertooth had short, powerful legs. These animals were not built to run fast or far. The sabertooth was probably an ambush hunter. It would have stalked its prey or attacked large animals from a hiding place.

The scimitar cat had long forelimbs, a long neck, and relatively short, powerful hindlimbs (see for example Rawn-Schatzinger, 1992). It seems to have combined strength with speed. It probably chased its prey more than did the sabertooth.

Saber-toothed cats ranged throughout much of the world during the last Ice Age. The sabertooth has been recovered from many sites in both North and South America. The scimitar cat had an even wider distribution. It is known from Africa, Eurasia, and North America. Both the sabertooth and scimitar cat have been recovered in the midwestern U.S.

Both types of saber-toothed cats went extinct approximately 11,500 years ago.

The development of elongated, flattened canine teeth, like those of the sabertooth and scimitar cat, is common in the evolution of large carnivorous mammals. Over the last 45 million years this type of tooth evolved separately in at least two lineages of cats, two lineages of nimravids (an extinct family allied to the cats, hyaenas, and civets), and one lineage of marsupial (in South America).

This is the upper canine (saber) from a sabertooth (Smilodon). It was recovered from a cave in eastern Missouri and is in the Geology Collections of the Illinois State Museum

Saber-toothed Cat Finds in the Midwestern U.S.

map of Saber=toothed Cat Finds
This map shows some of the sites at which the sabertooth (Smilodon) and the scimitar cat (Homotherium serum) have been found in the midwestern United States.

Green dots indicate sites from which Smilodon has been recovered. Homotherium serum has been recovered from the site shown with a red dot.

The sites on this map are all relatively well-dated and well-studied. These sites contain bones that are between 40,000 and 11,500 years old.