Wesman Todd Shaw has 7 cats at present, and his love for felines drove him to research the world-famous Saber-toothed cats.
Smilodon: The Saber-tooth Cat
For about two million years, the Americas were dominated on land by one of the most powerful mammalian predators of all time, the Smilodon populator, otherwise known as the "saber tooth 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 giant 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.
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 only know of three species of the genus very well, and they ranged in size from one hundred twenty pounds up to a thousand pounds. 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 today's bears than cats, 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.
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 the way the cats were built is very different.
The three Smilodon species had shorter and much more powerful limbs; the front legs were especially powerful. Not only that, the paws of the Smilodon were much better developed than are the forward paws of large cats today. This was because Smilodon cats were accustomed to pulling herbivorous creatures much larger than themselves to the ground. From there, they would sever the animal's neck arteries with their big saber teeth.
If you contrast that method of killing 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 as fast as the modern cheetah, all modern big cats are more built for sprints than for overpowering prey with their forelegs. But that is what the three species of Smilodon did—overpower or pull whatever they intended to eat to the ground, then slice the neck with the large saber teeth for a quick and bloody kill and meal.
All this oral glorification with the huge canine teeth 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 many people know that packs of lions are known as prides. The African lion is a bit different in how it socializes, as most other big cats are solitary creatures that only socialize for mating or when being raised after birth.
What is known about Smilodon's 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 today is most like the three ancient species of Smilodon? Well, none at all—but the Liger is about the size of the largest 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.
What Is the Liger?
The Three Species of the Genus Smilodon
Now the Smilodon populator was the largest cat to have ever lived. Still, as badly as US folk might find it disappointing, the Smilodon populator did not live in the territory 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, weighed regularly in at around a thousand pounds, and then some. 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 six million years ago, a nice long life for a species. The Smilodon fatalis did manage to roam into South America during the same time the larger Smilodon populator also lived there. This saber-toothed cat stood a full meter high at the shoulders, and they could weigh in at as much as six hundred and twenty or so pounds. The Smilodon fatalis also had two subspecies 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. 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. These species grew 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
How Did the Smilodon Cats Go Extinct?
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 into Western Alaska, and then they dispersed southward, 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 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.