Saber-toothed cats were fierce and family-oriented

A freshly detailed picture shows Smilodon helping the injured and the young

Smilodon hunting

THE BADDEST CAT  On countless occasions over thousands of years, predator and prey alike — such as saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths — became mired in the tar at what is now Rancho La Brea in southern California, leaving loads of fossils for researchers to study.

Sergio de la Rosa

The adolescent saber-toothed cat on a summertime hunt realized too late that she had made a terrible miscalculation. 

Already the size of a modern-day tiger, with huge canine teeth, she had crept across grassy terrain to ambush a giant ground sloth bellowing in distress. Ready to pounce, the cat’s front paw sank into sticky ground. Pressing down with her other three paws to free herself, then struggling in what has been called “tar pit aerobics,” she became irrevocably mired alongside her prey. 

Scenarios much like this played out repeatedly over at least the last 35,000 years at California’s Rancho La Brea tar pits. Entrapped herbivores, such as the sloth, attracted scavengers and predators — including dire wolves, vultures and saber-toothed Smilodon cats — to what looked like an easy meal. Eventually the animals would disappear into the muck, until paleontologists plucked their fossils from the ground in huge numbers over the last century.  

Five million or so fossils have been found at the site. But “it’s not like there was this orgy of death going on,” says Christopher Shaw, a paleontologist and former collections manager at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles. He calculates that such an entrapment scenario, dooming 10 or so large mammals and birds, would have needed to occur only once per decade over 35,000 years to account for that bounty of fossils.

At La Brea, the collection of Smilodon fatalis fossils alone includes more than 166,000 bones, from an estimated 3,000 of the ill-fated prehistoric cats. Famed for their fearsome canines, which grew up to 18 centimeters long, S. fatalis weighed as much as 280 kilograms, bigger than most of today’s largest lions and tigers. 

Carnivorous Smilodon cats went extinct 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. Sergio de la Rosa

Fossils of  S. fatalis, the second largest of three Smilodon species that roamed the Americas during the Pleistocene Epoch, have been found across the United States and in South America, west of the Andes as far south as Chile. And a recent study put S. fatalis in Alberta, Canada, about 1,000 kilometers north of its previously known range.

But the La Brea fossil site, unique in offering up so many specimens, is the source of the vast majority of knowledge about the species. There, fossils of dire wolves and saber-toothed cats together outnumber herbivores about 9-to-1, leading scientists to speculate that both predators may have formed prides or packs, similar to modern lions and wolves. Yet a small number of experts argue against cooperative behavior for Smilodon, reasoning that pack-living animals would have been too intelligent to get mired en masse. 

New studies may help settle the debate about Smilodon’s sociality, and answer questions about how the cat lived and why it died out 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

“We have an innate curiosity to understand what it was doing and why it went extinct,” says Larisa DeSantis, a vertebrate paleontologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Now, she says, “we can answer these questions.”

DeSantis is studying microscopic wear on fossil teeth and chemical signatures in the enamel to reveal Smilodon’s diet. Other scientists are doing biomechanical studies of the skull, fangs and limbs to understand how the powerful cat captured and killed its prey. Some researchers are extracting DNA from fossils, while others are gathering data on the paleoclimate to try to piece together why Smilodon died out. 

“It’s the T. rex of mammals … a big, scary predator,” says Ashley Reynolds, a paleontology Ph.D. student and fossil cat researcher at the University of Toronto. She presented the Alberta fossil find in October in Albuquerque at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference. Explaining why Smilodon cats continue to excite researchers, she says, “They’re probably the baddest of all the cats that have ever existed.”   

Safety in numbers

Whether Smilodon was a pack hunter has long been debated (SN: 10/28/17, p. 5) because living in groups is rare among large cats today. But an unusual number of healed injuries in the Smilodon bones at La Brea makes it unlikely that these cats were solitary, DeSantis and Shaw reported in November in Indianapolis at a meeting of the Geological Society of America. 

More than 5,000 of the Smilodon bones at La Brea have marks of injury or illness: tooth decay, heavily worn arthritic joints, broken legs and dislocated elbows that would have occurred before the animals’ tar burial. Dramatic examples include crushed chests and spinal injuries, which the cats somehow survived. “You would actually wince to see these horribly, traumatically injured specimens,” says Shaw, who is also coeditor of the 2018 book Smilodon: The Iconic Sabertooth.

One particularly debilitating injury was a crippled pelvis, but evidence of new bone growth shows that the animal lived long enough for healing to occur. “There was a lot of infection, pain and smelly stuff, and just a really awful situation for this animal, but it survived well over a year,” Shaw says. “To me that indicates [the injured cat] was part of a group that helped it survive by letting it feed at kills and protecting it.” 

Shaw and DeSantis looked at a series of specimens with what were probably agonizing maladies in the teeth and jaws, including fractured canines and massive infections that left animals with misshapen skulls. 

“These animals probably couldn’t have gone out … to kill anything,” Shaw says. “You know how it is when you have a toothache. This is like that times 100.” 

Paleontologist Larisa DeSantis examines Smilodon jawbones from La Brea to look for evidence of injuries that may have hampered a saber-toothed cat’s ability to hunt. Courtesy of L. DeSantis

DeSantis compared microscopic pits and scratches on the surface of the teeth of injured animals with microwear on the teeth of seemingly healthy Smilodon cats. The injured cats’ dental surfaces indicated that the animals were eating softer foods, which would have been less painful to chew, “likely a higher proportion of flesh, fat and organs, as opposed to bone,” she says.

The findings are consistent with the interpretation that Smilodon was a group-living animal, she says, and that the cats “allowed each other access to food when [injured pack members] couldn’t necessarily take down their own prey.”

Reynolds agrees that the healed injuries are persuasive evidence that Smilodon lived in groups. “When you see an animal with really nasty injuries that healed somehow, it does make you wonder if they were cared for.” 

Not everyone is convinced, however. Ecologist Christian Kiffner of the Center for Wildlife Management Studies in Karatu, Tanzania, has studied modern carnivores such as African lions and spotted hyenas. “Relatively long survival of Smilodon fatalis individuals after dental injuries had occurred does not necessarily provide airtight evidence for a specific social system in this species,” he says. “It is very, very difficult to use patterns in Pleistocene carnivore [fossil] assemblages to make inferences about behavior of an extinct species.”

Even if the saber-toothed cats did live in groups, the animals’ exact social structure remains an open question, Reynolds says. Modern lion prides have numerous females and several younger males led by an alpha male, with intense competition between male lions. As a result, males are much bigger than females, as the males must work hard to defend their positions. 

Despite searching, scientists have not found obvious evidence of a size difference between the sexes in Smilodon; researchers can’t even tell which La Brea fossils are male or female. Size differences between the sexes, if they existed, may have been small. 

“That lack of sexual dimorphism is odd,” says Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA paleontologist who studies fossil carnivores. Sex-related size differences are seen in many big cats today, most particularly lions. She thinks the lack of sexual dimorphism in Smilodon might hint at a different social structure. Perhaps males weren’t competing quite so intensely for access to females. Maybe there was no single alpha male preventing the majority of males from making a move. 

Family affair

Perhaps Smilodon groups had an alpha female rather than an alpha male, or an alpha pair. Such is the case in modern wolves and coyotes, which have less pronounced size differences between sexes than lions do. The prehistoric cats “could have had extended family structures [similar to wolves] where uncles and aunts hung around, because it probably took a while to raise the young saber-toothed cats,” Van Valkenburgh suspects. 

Kittens may have taken a long time, as long as 22 months, to get most of their adult teeth, she says. The upper canines took even longer, as much as three years or more, to reach their massive size, researchers reported in PLOS ONE in 2015. Modern lions, in contrast, typically have all of their adult teeth by 17 months, Van Valkenburgh says.

Smilodon kittens also probably went through a substantial learning curve before attempting to take down large prey. “It took longer for them to learn how to safely kill something without breaking their teeth or biting in the wrong place and hurting themselves,” Van Valkenburgh speculates. 

Pack living would enable this slower development: “If you’re a social species, you can afford to grow at a slower rate than a nonsocial species because you have a family safety net,” Reynolds says. She is studying Smilodon fossils from Peru’s Talara tar pits for evidence of slow bone development using bone histology, examining thin cross sections under a microscope to determine such things as age and growth rate.

A saber-toothed Smilodon fatalis skeleton reveals the robust forelimbs the cat used to pin down prey and the long canines that delivered a fatal bite. The Natural History Museum/Alamy Stock Photo

To understand how saber-toothed cats eventually took down prey, Van Valkenburgh joined paleobiologist Borja Figueirido of the University of Málaga in Spain and others. The group studied the biomechanics of Smilodon’s killing bite and how the animal used its sabers. That work, published in the October 22, 2018 Current Biology, adds to a consensus that the cat used its powerful forelimbs, which existed even in the youngsters (SN Online: 9/27/17), to pin prey before applying a lethal bite to the neck.

“The specialization of being a saber-toothed appears to have been partly to effectively take prey larger than yourself and to do that very quickly,” Van Valkenburgh says. With the prey tightly gripped, a Smilodon cat would position itself so that one or two really strong canine bites would rip open the pinned animal’s throat.

In contrast, lions suffocate prey — one lion may clamp its jaws around the neck, crushing the windpipe, while another uses its mouth to cover the victim’s nose and mouth. Using this slower method would have increased Smilodon’s chances of injuring or damaging those precious canine teeth.

Diverging senses

Smilodon and its extinct saber-toothed relatives are on a branch of the cat family tree that is far from today’s cats. Scientists think Smilodon’s branch diverged from the ancestors of all living cats about 20 million years ago. Given the evolutionary distance, researchers are still trying to determine how similar — or different — Smilodon was from its living feline cousins. A recent focus has been the cat’s sounds and senses.

At the October vertebrate paleontology conference, Shaw presented evidence that Smilodon may have roared, as do lions, tigers, leopards and their close relatives. The clues come from 150 La Brea fossils that were once part of the hyoid arch, or larynx, in the Smilodon throat. (Tar pits stand out for preserving tiny bones rarely found elsewhere.) The small fossils are very similar in shape and style to those of roaring cats. House cats and others that purr have a different arrangement of bones. 

Smilodon may have “used this type of communication as an integral part of social behavior,” Shaw says. Roaring, however, is not a sure sign of pack living, Reynolds notes; most roaring cats today do not live in large groups. 

How Smilodon’s sense of smell compared with living cats’ is something else researchers wonder about. To probe this part of the extinct animal’s biology, a team lead by Van Valkenburgh looked at Smilodon’s cribriform plate — a small, perforated bone inside the skull. Smell-sensing nerve cells pass through holes in the plate from the olfactory receptors in the nose to the brain. The size and number of holes are thought to correlate with the number of receptors and, therefore, the extent of an animal’s sense of smell.

To confirm this link, Van Valkenburgh’s team combined CT scans and 3-D images of skulls from 27 species of living mammals with information on the number of olfactory receptor genes. A CT scan of a skull revealed that Smilodon may have had slightly fewer olfactory receptor nerve cells than a domestic cat, the researchers reported at the paleontology conference. Smilodon’s sense of smell was perhaps 10 to 20 percent less keen than a modern lion’s, says Van Valkenburgh, whose team reported the findings in the March 14, 2018 Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Smilodon “might have relied more heavily on their eyes and their ears,” she says. Perhaps, in an ancient evolutionary divergence, Smilodon’s level of reliance on smell went in a slightly different direction than in modern big cats.

Saber-toothed swan song  

As the pieces of the Smilodon puzzle fall into place, perhaps the biggest remaining mystery is why the animal disappeared 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Debate about the extinction of some of North America’s large mammal species swings between blaming humans and climate change (SN: 11/10/18, p. 28). While humans, who probably arrived on the continent more than 15,000 years ago, and Smilodon certainly knew one another in the Americas, they may not have overlapped at La Brea, Shaw says. The earliest evidence of people in the Los Angeles Basin is about 11,000 years ago, by which time Smilodon may or may not already have gone. Nevertheless, human hunting of large prey elsewhere in the Americas could have led to a scarcity of food for the big cats, he says. 

One theory holds that Smilodon went through tough times at La Brea when lack of prey forced the saber-toothed cats to consume entire carcasses including bones. This has been posited as the reason for all those broken teeth among the La Brea fossils. But DeSantis isn’t convinced; she thinks breakages happened during scuffles with prey. She says dental microwear suggests that Smilodon was not eating great quantities of bone.

Some opportunistic carnivores, such as cougars, did eat bone and managed to survive to the modern day. Perhaps Smilodon couldn’t adapt to hunting smaller prey when larger herbivores disappeared, also around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago (SN: 11/24/18, p. 22). 

“A lot of the large prey on the landscape go extinct,” DeSantis says. “You lose out on the horses, camels, giant ground sloths, mammoths and mastodon. That’s got to have had an impact.”

The challenge of dating fossils from the tar pits has been one hurdle to understanding exactly what was going on with Smilodon over time. Bones deposited over many thousands of years get jumbled by movement in the tar, for reasons experts don’t fully understand. Plus, the tar itself becomes embedded in each specimen, complicating carbon dating. 

However, new methods of chemically pretreating fossils to remove the tar have made carbon dating much easier and cheaper — and a multi-institutional project is now dating hundreds of Smilodon and other bones. Researchers will soon be able to track changes in Smilodon over the 35,000 years of prehistory recorded at La Brea and correlate fossil changes to known changes in climate over that time. 

 “We’re going to have a much better handle,” Van Valkenburgh says, “on what was going on towards the end of their existence.”

This article appears in the March 30, 2019 issue of Science News with the headline, “The Baddest Cat of All: Fresh details say saber-toothed Smilodon helped injured pack members.”

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