The Saber—Tooth Tiger
Smilodon—The Saber-Tooth Cat
For about two million years the America's were dominated on land by one of the most powerful mammalian predators of all time, the Smilodon populator, otherwise known as the saber-toothed tiger. Now those up to eleven inch long teeth get all the attention, but the entire animal was built to kill the largest of herbivores, and who argues with a thousand pound cat?
Those big sabers of the Smilodon did have a purpose, of course, as nature always does, and in this instance, the purpose of the twin sabers was clear, to rip out the throat of something and turn it into dinner in one big bite.
A Nice Rendition of What a Smilodon May Have Looked Like
Smilodon, an Ancient Cat of the Americas—Not a Tiger
Now despite the colloquial phrase or moniker saber-tooth tiger, our Smilodon was not a tiger at all, but of course, I realize the three part name is catchy and isn't likely to be substituted for saber-tooth cat anytime soon. What is very important to realize here is that when we talk of the Smilodon, we are talking about an entire genus of cats and not just one species of cat.
There were possibly many more species of Smilodon, but we now know of three species of the genus very well, and they ranged in size from one hundred twenty pounds all the way up to a thousand pounds, and all species were built more thickly muscled than any species of cat from any genus of cat living today. It could be said, and has, that the Smilodon genus of ancient and extinct cats was built more like bears than the cats of today, but they were definitely cats, and the ancient bears were quite another thing altogether.
Please do not be confused here concerning the three species of saber-toothed cats of the genus Smilodon, they weren't all living or existing in healthy numbers at the same time or in the same place—but overlaps of both time and place of the three species did happen, and were all in the Americas, both North, and South.
An Extremely Muscular Cat—A Smilodon, or Saber-Toothed Cat
Complete Skeleton of a Smilodon, or Saber-Tooth Cat
Smilodon and Modern Big Cat Differences
All three species of known and/or verified Smilodon were roughly proportionate to one another, and all are very different from modern big cats. Of course, the large saber teeth are unique to the extinct Smilodon species, but also the way the cats were built is very different. The three Smilodon species had shorter and much more powerful limbs, and especially powerful were the front legs. Not only that, the paws of the Smilodon were much better developed than are the forward paws of large cats today, and the reason for this was that Smilodon cats were accustomed to literally pulling much larger than they herbivorous creatures to the ground, and from there they would sever the animal's arteries of the neck with the big saber teeth.
If you contrast that method of kill to the biggest American cat of today, the Jaguar, there is a lot of difference in the build and killing technique of these American cats. The Jaguar pounces on the backs of creatures that may be larger than it is, but these creatures are substantially smaller in size to size proportion to the kills made by the three species of Smilodons, and the jaguar kills its prey by crunching through the victim's skull into the brain.
All species of Smilodon were built for power rather than speed. While no cats run so fast as do the modern cheetah, all modern big cats are definitely more built for sprints than they are for overpowering prey with their forelegs. But that is what the three species of Smilodon did - over power, or pull to the ground whatever they intended to eat, and then slice the neck with the large saber teeth for a quick and bloody kill and meal.
All this oral glorification that comes with huge canine teeth and such aimed kindly in the direction of the cats of the genus Smilodon is totally uncalled for. The truth of the matter is that today's big cats have more powerful pound per square inch bites than Smilodon cats had, though the Smilodon mouth might look very frightful, it was the big muscular body that was truly the weapon, as once it had you, then you'd feel the teeth, and then no more.
It is well known that the African Lion is a somewhat social creature, and lots do know that packs of lions are known as prides. The African lion is a bit different in the way it socializes, as most other big cats are solitary creatures that only socialize for mating, or in the time when it is being raised.
What is known about Smilodon social skills or traits? Absolutely nothing. It has forever been speculated that the Smilodon species were all solitary cats as are the jaguar and the cougar, or mountain lion —but hard facts on this issue are nothing but speculation at this time.
What cat in the world today is most like the three ancient species of Smilodon? Well, none at all - but the Liger is about the size of the largest of the Smilodon species. Ligers do not occur naturally in the wild but are the cross between a male lion and a female tiger. Ligers are virtual super cats but are only bred in captivity by persons educated, funded, and fully capable of doing so—for studies concerning the complexities of genetics. A Liger may weigh as much as a thousand pounds.
The Liger, the World's Largest Cat - Roughly the Size of a Smilodon. Populator, but Not Nearly as Powerful
Smilodon Populator—The Largest Saber-Toothed Cat, and the Largest Cat to Have Ever Lived
The Three Species of the Genus Smilodon
Now the Smilodon populator was the largest cat to have ever lived, but as badly as US folk might find it disappointing, the Smilodon populator did not live in the territory that is now known as the USA. This cat, the largest that ever lived, was the apex predator of the Eastern parts of South America from ten thousand years ago all the way back to one million years ago, and nothing at all could contend with it.
The Smilodon populator was as tall as fifty-five inches high at the shoulder, one hundred inches long, and weighed regularly in at around a thousand pounds, and then some a little more. There are a lot of very well preserved remains of this cat taken from Peruvian caves.
The second largest species of the Smilodon was the Smilodon fatalis, which was the big North American cat. The Smilodon fatalis roamed Northern America from ten thousand years ago all the way back to one point six million years ago, a nice long set of lives for a species. The Smilodon fatalis did manage to roam South to the Southern Americas, and during the same time in which the larger Smilodon populator also lived there. A full meter high at the shoulders stood this saber-toothed cat, and they could weigh in at as much as six hundred and twenty or so pounds. The Smilodon fatalis also had two subspecies that generated from it, the Smilodon of California, and the Smilodon of Florida.
Hopefully, you've noticed that this section of text is going backward in time, and as we go back we find the first species of Smilodon to have developed, the Smilodon gracilis, which lived in Northern America from two and a half million years ago up to five hundred thousand years ago. The larger two species of Smilodon are presumed to have evolved from the Smilodon gracilis, which as you follow, the species got larger until they died out, and this one, of course, is the smallest and weighed in at between one twenty to two hundred and twenty pounds. This cat, of course, came from an even smaller cat with big somewhat saber teeth, the Megantereon.
The Smilodon Populator
What Became of the Smilodon Cats?
Obviously, all three species of Smilodon are very extinct. Why they went extinct is a subject of much speculation as is the subject of Smilodon social activities. There are two major bits of speculation concerning the extinction of Smilodon cats, and most likely, a combination of the two lines of reasoning would lead to the actual answer.
During the lives of the Smilodon cats a new creature entered their realms here in the Americas, and of course, that creature was the human being. Humans, of course, crossed over the Bering Straight from Eastern Siberia over into Western Alaska, and then they dispersed Southward from there becoming the Natives of America. Most certainly the original immigrants to the Americas from Asia, or at least the earliest immigrants from Asia that are known of, hunted the large megafauna beasts just as did the Saber-Toothed cats, or Smilodon cats. As humans multiplied they surely decreased the number of viable Smilodon meals available, and so perhaps the big cats slowly died out due to too few meals.
The second idea is that as the ice age that allowed the ice bridge of the Bering Straight to have been formed ended, the changing temperatures changed the vegetation that grew in the Smilodon territories, and so the prey of the Smilodon cats died out from the loss of their flora cuisine. With no herbivores to eat, no more Smilodon. Surely it is most reasonable to conclude that a combination of the two things caused the loss of these large carnivores with the saber teeth—as both show how the very prey the cats survived on could be depleted to levels below sustainability for such large apex predators.
If you would like to know more about the Americas during the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 mya—10,000 years ago), then I can think of no more entertaining set of videos to watch than those titled The Monsters We Met.
Thank you for Reading.
Megantereon, the Predecessor to Smilodon Cats
Questions & Answers
why did saber-toothed tigers die out?
It was an event (over the course of many years) which is now called the Quaternary extinction.
© 2012 Wesman Todd Shaw