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

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. 

N.R. Chimento

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.

John Pickrell is a freelance writer based in Sydney and the author of Flames of Extinction: The Race to Save Australia’s Threatened Wildlife.

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