The 5 Deadliest Predators of All Time
The Deadliest Cat of All Time
Man and Beast
A Fossil Treasure Trove
Smilodon was a prehistoric cat that is often popularly referred to as the ‘sabre-toothed tiger’. In reality though, they weren’t closely related to living tigers at all. The correct term to use when referring to Smilodon and its kin is ‘sabre-toothed cat’. Smilodon was the largest of the sabre-toothed cats and among the largest mammalian carnivores to ever prowl the Earth. They lived in what is now the USA and South America, favouring habitat with a nice mixture of tree cover and open spaces that enabled it to hunt large, slow moving herbivores. It probably hunted in groups, perhaps living in prides, similar to African lions; compelling evidence suggests older or injured cats were supported by other members of the group, despite their inability to hunt.
During the hunt, several Smilodons’ would have worked together, stalking their prey through the long pampas grass. Each cat though could only give chase for a short time, as their short, stubby tails gave them a profound deficiency in terms of balance. Indeed, it’s likely that Smilodon had to utilise vegetation for cover and the art of ambush in order to secure a prey item. Surprisingly, the cat’s formidable 8.5 inch sabres were actually rather brittle and were prone to breaking; therefore the cat couldn’t grip onto its prey with its teeth like a Lion. Instead, using their sheer bulk and powerful forelimbs they literally wrestled their prey to the ground, once the victim was pinned, another cat would move in and clamp those sabres around the prey’s windpipe. They would then use their powerful jaw muscles to strangle it to death or rip out its throat.
The brittleness of Smilodon’s sabres meant that there was actually much of the carcass that it couldn’t possibly feast upon. It couldn’t risk biting onto bone, so instead ate only from the softest parts of the body such as the stomach region. While this wastefulness was bad for Smilodon, it was good news for the menagerie of mammalian and avian scavengers that inhabited the Americas at the time.
Fossils of Smilodon have been found right across the Americas, but the most famous ones come from the La Brea tar-pit in California. Tens of thousands of years ago, La Brea was a sticky swamp, which acted like a magnet for large herbivores wishing to cool off during the heat of the day. On occasion, the herbivores would become mired, and of course the smell of a trapped, distressed animal soon attracted predators, which became trapped themselves. There are so many Smilodon fossils in La Brea that scientists have been able to unravel much about its lifestyle. For instance, some fossils showed signs of serious injury, meaning that the animals couldn’t have possibly hunted, and yet it seems they managed to survive for some time after being injured. This means that they were probably feeding off other Smilodon kills, suggesting that they did live in groups.
At one time there were actually several sub species of Smilodon living across North America. Then, around 2.5 million years ago, South America joined onto its Northern neighbour creating the Isthmus of Panama. At least one species of Smilodon made the journey southwards and became the top predator on the Pampas grasslands. It’s clear that through the abundance of fossil evidence that Smilodon was a successful predator, which is why its extinction remains a mystery, although it seems likely that its demise was linked to the sudden extinction of large herbivores shortly after humans colonised the Americas some 13,000 years ago.
Smilodon in Action
Fossil of the First Super Predator
One of the Strangest Faces Ever to Evolve
In order to profile the fourth deadliest predator of all time, we have to travel far; far back into Earth’s past; right back to the Cambrian era, some 500 million years into the past. Our world would be almost totally unrecognisable, the land would be bare rock similar to Mars, but already at this point the oceans teemed with life. For millions of years, the gears of evolution had turned rather slowly; the majority of creatures that existed up to this point were simple, soft bodied creatures that blindly drifted in the currents.
But at this time life on Earth began to evolve in a whole new direction, the first predators had arrived, and the biggest and deadliest was a strange invertebrate called Anomalocaris; it was the largest animal on the planet at the time, at around 6 and a half feet long. It had a flexible, segmented body, large eyes and a circular mouth built from razor sharp plates. It was quite unlike any animal alive today, and its unique features were unfortunately destined to disappear with it. Indeed the Cambrian produced many bizarre and exotic animal designs that would ultimately become evolutionary dead ends.
Anomalocaris probably lived in small shoals, cruising the tropical coastal waters in search of prey. During the Cambrian era, around 90 per cent of all hard shelled animals were arthropods (the group that today includes insects, spiders and crustaceans) so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that Anomalocaris itself was an arthropod, although its hard shell wasn’t quite as rigid as the smaller animals that it prey upon.
Anomalocaris possessed two large eyes that were mounted on stalks, meaning that it was one of the first animals on Earth to be able to track its prey by site. While, it was capable of eating anything, it seemed to favour the famous trilobites, of which there were many species around at the time. Trilobites though, weren’t exactly easy prey, as their hard shells gave them considerable protection. In order to overcome this Anomalocaris used its curled front appendages to grab and hold its prey; it would then flex it backwards and forwards continuously until the shell crack, giving it access to the soft meat inside.
On occasion this giant predator would use its sharp interlocking plates inside its circular mouth to take a bite out of a prey item. In fact, several trilobite fossils have been found with a wedge shaped bite mark in their shells. In addition to hunting, Anomalocaris also used its front appendages to rake the mud for soft bodied animals such as worms.
They swam by moving the flaps on the side of their body up and down in a wave like motion. In comparison to most other Cambrian animals it was rather manoeuvrable and capable of attaining a considerable speed or hovering while stationary. The evolution of Anomalocaris, arguably the world’s first super predator may have led to many other animals evolving hard shells to protect themselves from it.
Fossils of Anomalocaris have been found in Canada, China and Australia. Initially scientists were bemused as to what exactly the creature looked like and initially the fossils found were thought to belong to two different kinds of animals, and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that scientists realised that the fossils were actually a part of one large animal.
It’s now known that there were actually several species of Anomalocaris, and while most scientists agree that it was an arthropod, its mouth and side flaps are not found in any other type of animal. As a consequence it’s unclear how they are related to other arthropods.
Anomalocaris on Film
Staring into the Eyes of a Monster
King of the Dinosaurs
3. Tyrannosaurus Rex
The most famous and influential of all dinosaurs, it was a massive bipedal creature with a powerful tail, a huge head and tiny arms. T-Rex, to give it its more affectionate name inhabited the dry open plains of Cretaceous North America, where it roamed widely in search of prey, mostly other large dinosaurs. It’s thought that it possessed an exceptional sense of smell, which it may have used to try to find a mate or possibly locate dead bodies from which it could scavenge.
T-Rex’s primary weapons were its huge mouth and serrated teeth. Its jaws alone could be up to 4 feet long with a gape up to 3 feet 3 wide. T-Rex’s curved and serrated teeth were often as long as a human hand and would be used to inflict a vice like grasp on the flanks of large dinosaurs, crushing bones, puncturing arteries and damaging major organs in the process, thus bringing death quickly to its prey.
Tyrannosaurus devoured its kill by tearing the flesh off its victim in strips, but its inability to chew meant that it had to swallow its food whole. It’s possible that Tyrannosaurus was capable of gulping down up to 154Ib’s of meat in one. Such a feeding strategy meant that T-Rex was always in danger of death through choking and indeed a fossil of a large theropod related to T-Rex shows that it met its end through choking on two bones that had become lodged in its throat.
One of the more intriguing and puzzling aspects of Tyrannosaurus was its two tiny, stubby, two fingered arms. What were they used for? They were too short to reach its mouth and far too weak to provide any means of defence or hunting. The best theory that scientists have devised is that they may have acted as a counterbalance to its gigantic head; or an alternate theory is they could have been used as part of a mating ritual. Some fossils do show tooth marks suggesting the T-Rex’s occasionally fought each other over territory.
The first Tyrannosaurus skeleton was discovered in Montana in 1902 by Barnum Brown, since then more than 20 skeletons have been unearthed in both Canada and the US. The most complete and thus the most famous is a specimen known as ‘Sue.’ Over the years, she became the subject of a long and bitter custody battle between its discoverer and the owner of the land she was found on. Eventually the matter was settled by virtue of ‘Sue’ being sold for over $7 million; nowadays she resides in the Chicago Field Museum.
T-Rex was just one of several related species that are collectively referred to as tyrannosaurids. All of them were predatory, theropod dinosaurs, but many were comparatively smaller than T-Rex who was more than 40 feet long and stood more than twice as high as a full grown man. According to the fossil record, they first evolved around 150 million years ago in the Jurassic era, but it wasn’t until the Late Cretaceous era (around 99 million years ago) that they experienced an explosion in diversity and spread themselves across the world. None of the tyrannosaurids managed to survive the mass extinction event that overwhelmed the Earth 65 million years ago. Tyrannosaurus was probably one of the last large dinosaurs to evolve on Earth.
For a long time, Tyrannosaurus was known as the largest meat eating dinosaur, and indeed animal of all time. But in recent years, it has lost its crown to the Giganotosaurus from South America, who amazingly preyed upon the largest land animals to ever exist, the huge sauropod, Argentinosaurus. However, despite this, T-Rex remains the most famous dinosaur, appearing as the main subject for countless books, films and TV programs. Its familiar, unmistakable shape makes it one of the icons of science, and is considered by many in the field as the most important fossil of all time.
An Awesome Scene From an Awesome Film
The Skull of Liopleurodon
Clash of the Jurassic Titans
Liopleurodon in Action
One of the most amazing things about the Age of the Dinosaurs was the fact that the mightiest predator alive at the time wasn’t even a dinosaur. Liopleurodon was a marine reptile and a colossal one at that, measuring up to 82 feet in body length. Despite its bulk, it was capable of gliding silently through the warm, tropical shallow seas of the Late Jurassic. It propelled itself by alternately flapping its gigantic flippers. Such a form of swimming was totally unique to Liopleurodon and its relatives known collectively as the plesiosaurs; no other animals before and since have used such a method of locomotion.
The skull of Liopleurodon was enormous, accounting for nearly half of its total body length. It attached itself to the body through a comparatively short neck. The long jaws housed rows of needle sharp teeth that were capable of killing any other marine animal at the time. Both the skull and jawbones were specially strengthened to help them withstand the powerful biting force of its jaws. Liopleurodon is the largest predator known, its jaws were three times larger than Tyrannosaurus, and thus it comes as no surprise to learn that it preyed predominantly on other giant marine reptiles and fish. It particularly favoured marine crocodiles, sharks, ichthyosaurs and other pliosaurs, but most impressively they preyed upon the largest fish to ever exist, the 90 foot giant known as Leedsichthys.
Most marine reptiles had to close their nostrils while swimming, through obviously not wanting to drown, but pliosaurs such as Liopleurodon had evolved a nose that allowed them to smell while holding their breath under water. With this heightened sense, Liopleurodon could have smelt its prey from a considerable distance, and similar to sharks follow the scent right up to its source. It had very good eyesight, and once it spotted a suitable prey item, it put on a quick burst of speed using its enormous flippers, before finally gobbling up its prey, swallowing them whole when possible.
Being a reptile meant that Liopleurodon still needed to breathe air, but even so it spent its entire life at sea, and was far too large and bulky to leave the water, even for short periods of time. As a result, it would have probably given birth to live young, and like modern whales may have sought out the relative safety of shallow water to do so. The juveniles would have probably remained in the safety of the shallows until they had grown to a sufficient size.
Liopleurodon fossils were initially uncovered in France in 1873, with the longest measuring 59 feet in length. But recently another large marine reptile has been found with deep tooth marks in its flanks, probably from a Liopleurodon that was estimated to be at least 82 feet long.
The pliosaurs were a group of animals that belonged to the highly successful plesiosaur order, and Liopleurodon was part of a group that is sometimes referred to as the ‘short-necked plesiosaurs’. Their origins lie in the late Triassic Period (227-206 million years ago); they quickly diversified into many different species and by the Early Jurassic were among the commonest large animals in the oceans. As well as the short necked variety, the plesiosaurs also contained among their ranks, the more famous long necked species that often serve as source for the Loch Ness Monster legend. There were many species of pliosaurs alive during the Jurassic, but by the Cretaceous Period, they had become rare, and by 80 million years ago. The plesiosaurs, as an order continued to thrive right up until the cataclysmic events that overtook almost all life on Earth 65 million years ago.
How Brain Triumphs Over Brawn
Evidence of Complex Behaviour
The Turning Point
1. Homo Sapiens
So here we are, the most deadly predator of all time, and it’s a very familiar animal, if you wish to see one, all you have to do is look in the mirror. We often refer to ourselves as human, but scientifically we’re known as Homo sapiens, which is a mixture of Greek and Latin, meaning ‘wise or knowing man’. We first evolved in Eastern Africa around 190,000 years ago, and for a long time that’s exactly where we stayed, indeed for much of our history there seemed to be precious little evidence that we were going to one day dominate the planet. But by 90,000 years ago things had begun to change, we left Africa initially in small numbers, but in just 50,000 years there were established human populations in Asia, Europe and the Far East, including Australia.
Its the Homo sapiens who initially colonised Europe though that attract the most attention, because of the extraordinary discoveries that elude to the fact that they possessed a highly complex culture and an artistic ability that still stuns us today. The first humans of Europe are often called Cro-Magnons, after the place in France where they were first found.
The Cro-Magnons shared the continent of Europe with another very famous human species, the Neanderthals. While these more ancient humans were specifically adapted to their environment, the Cro-Magnons’ ability to think abstractedly, solve complex problems meant that they were able to adapt to the Ice Age environment relatively quickly. They fashioned advance flint knives and spearheads, ropes and close fitting woven clothes. Using their extraordinary tool making skills, the Cro-Magnons were able to hunt more efficiently and make more of their food by processing it more effectively; they even learned how to store it for later use. The Cro-Magnons also supplemented their meat diet with edible plants, fruit and vegetables, meaning that they were probably weren’t as reliant on hunting as the Neanderthals.
The best insight into the burgeoning brainpower of our species comes from their magnificent cave art and the exquisite sculptures and carvings that they left behind. The most famous cave art sight in the world is at Lascaux in France, and the drawings there depict mostly large animals such as mammoths and rhinos, as well as abstract art such as coloured dots and handprints. It’s certain that some of these paintings had some sort of religious significance, and thus provide conclusive evidence that Cro-Magnon men were every bit as modern as us, both in terms of appearance and behaviour.
For most of their history, Homo sapiens shared the world with other humans, but by 28,000 years ago both the Neanderthals and the last surviving Homo erectus in Asia were gone, and finally around 12,000 years ago, Homo floresiensis, those tiny island dwelling humans in Indonesia had also vanished. The resourcefulness of Homo sapiens allowed them to survive the Ice Age, colonise more of the globe, and discover new ways of living together through the power of invention. The invention of agriculture in the Near East 11,000 years ago transformed our species and set us on the road towards the world we live in today, a world of constant technological change.
The extraordinary inventiveness of Homo sapiens has allowed them to effectively step outside the natural order, they produced their own food through farming that allowed populations to grow exponentially. This process has gained speed down the millennia, to the point where the human presence now stands at 7 billion. The seemingly overwhelming number of humans on the planet has put enormous pressure on Earth’s limited resources and many of its ecosystems, as a result its accurate to term us as the most deadly predator to ever evolve. Moreover our inventiveness allows us to produce weapons to kill anything from flies to whales and we even attempt to wipe out certain harmful bacteria and viruses by using various forms of medicine.