Fossils reveal saber-toothed cats may have pierced rivals’ skulls | Science News


Science News is a nonprofit.

Support us by subscribing now.

News in Brief

Fossils reveal saber-toothed cats may have pierced rivals’ skulls

The curved canine of one ancient cat fits precisely into a hole left in the skull of another

7:00am, May 31, 2019
saber-toothed cat skulls

BIG BITE The juxtaposition of these two fossil skulls shows how a large, curving canine tooth from one saber-toothed cat (Smilodon populator) neatly fits in the fossil skull of another member of the same species. 

Sponsor Message

Saber-toothed cats may sometimes have wielded their formidable canine teeth as deadly weapons to puncture the skulls of rival cats.

It was already suspected that Smilodon cats used their huge canines to take down prey, perhaps by ripping out the prey’s throat (SN: 3/30/19, p. 20). But some researchers argued that the daggerlike teeth, which could grow up to 28 centimeters long in the largest species, were too thin and fragile to puncture bone without breaking. 

But a new analysis of two skulls from Smilodon populator, a saber-toothed cat species that prowled what is now South America, contests that idea, says a team of Argentinian researchers led by Nicolás Chimento. Large puncture holes in the top of the fossil skulls match the size and shape of canines of saber-toothed cats, the researchers report online in the May Comptes Rendus Palevol. Similar injuries are sometimes seen in the skulls of living cats, such as leopards, jaguars and cheetahs, the authors write.

Smilodon canines were strong enough to penetrate bone and were formidable hunting weapons,” says Chimento, a paleontologist at the Bernardino Rivadavia Argentine Natural Science Museum in Buenos Aires. The skull wounds were probably made during tussles while “fighting for territoriality, access to females or food.”

The punctured skulls, dating from the Late Pleistocene Epoch, sometime between 11,000 and 126,000 years, were discovered in northeastern Argentina. An amateur collector found one in 1992, while coauthor Javier Ochoa, a paleontologist at the Florentino Ameghino Regional Museum in Córdoba, found the other. It’s likely that North America’s closely related S. fatalis would have exhibited similar behavior, Chimento says.


N.R. Chimento et al. Evidence of intraspecific agonistic interactions in Smilodon populator (Carnivora, Felidae). Comptes Rendus Palevol. Published online May 2019. doi: 10.1016/j.crpv.2019.02.006

Further Reading

J. Pickrell. Saber-toothed cats were fierce and family-oriented. Science News. Vol. 195, March 30, 2019, p. 20

L. Evans-Ogden. Surgeon aims to diagnose deformities of extinct saber-toothed cats. Science News. Vol. 192. October 28, 2017, p. 5. 

S. Zielinski. How a saber-toothed cat is like a can opener. Science News Online. October 6, 2014.

G. Dickey. Saber-toothed cats strong-armed prey. Science News. Vol. 178. July, 21, 2010, p. 16.

S. Perkins. A more fearsome saber-toothed cat. Science News Online. October 20, 2008.

Get Science News headlines by e-mail.

More on 2017 Top 10

From the Nature Index Paid Content