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10 Fun Facts About Saber-Toothed Cats

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Why did these terrifying beasts evolve their nasty canines? Were they loners or pride hunters? And could primitive humans have been on the menu? Let’s explore the world of saber-tooth studies.   

1. SABER-TOOTHED CATS WERE A LARGE AND DIVERSE GROUP.

(Pictured: Smilodon Fatalis Sergiodlarosa) via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

When people mention saber-toothed cats, they’re usually talking about one very specific creature: Smilodon fatalis. But over a dozen prehistoric felines had abnormally-large fangs—and despite widespread belief, none of them were true tigers. In addition, many non-cat predators are sometimes colloquially called saber-toothed cats, including the 9-million-year-old Nimravides catocopis, a relative of both felines and hyenas that doesn’t belong to either group.

2. THEY APPARENTLY ATE OUR ANCESTORS.

Megantereon via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0


Two holes on a 1.75-million-year-old hominid skull from the Republic of Georgia perfectly match the elongated canines of either the lion-sized Homotherium or its smaller cousin, Megantereon. Since both wounds appear in the braincase’s back and bottom, it’s likely that whichever cat was responsible pinned the victim down face-up, placed its mouth over the top of the hominid’s head, and buried its teeth near the spinal cord.

3. MOST SPECIES FALL UNDER TWO MAIN CATEGORIES. 

Xenosmilus (right) via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The machairodonts comprise an extinct subfamily that includes the majority of saber-toothed felines. Using a few anatomical details, scientists have identified two primary subgroups: scimitar-toothed cats like Homotherium, which were likely agile hunters with broad, shorter canines; and dirk-tooths like Smilodon, which had long, thin fangs and heavyset bodies.

But some machairodonts aren't easily categorized: Florida’s Xenosmilus, for example, rocked both scimitar canines and the squat, muscular legs of a dirk-tooth.

4. THEY OFTEN LIVED ALONGSIDE NON-SABER-TOOTHED CATS.

During the last Ice Age, Smilodon had to compete with the American lion (Panthera leo atrox), a huge animal that was about 25 percent bigger than its modern-day namesake. The lynx and pumas we all know today were also around at the time, as was a speedy, cheetah-esque predator called Miracinonyx.  In Europe, Homotherium shared its landscape with Panthera leo spelaea, also known as the cave lion

5. AT LEAST ONE SPECIES APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN SOCIAL.

via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

The remains of 19 adult Homotherium and 13 juveniles were found in Texas’s Friesenhahn Cave—along with upwards of 300 milk teeth from young mammoths. Scientists theorize that the cave was home to a pride that dragged elephantine herbivores back to eat. Another site, in Tennessee, supports this hypothesis—two full-grown Homotherium and a cub were discovered with several mastodons.

6. THE MOST FAMOUS SABER-TOOTH WAS A WEAK BITER ...

via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

In 2007, paleontologist Stephen Wroe was part of a team that digitally reconstructed this cat's skull, along with a 21st-century lion’s. The study revealed that Smilodon could only chomp down with one-third of the force that lions exert today. “For all its reputation, Smilodon had a wimpy bite,” Wroe said.

But what this animal lacked in strength, it made up for in flexibility: A Smilodon’s jaws were capable of opening at an astounding 120-degree angle. By comparison, a lion’s jaws max out at 60 degrees.

7. ... AND IT LIKELY WRESTLED PREY TO THE GROUND.

via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Relative to other felines, the predator had disproportionately thick front legs—so, as Julie Meachen of Des Moines University told LiveScience, Smilodon “must have used [its] forelimbs more than any other cats did.”

To understand why, just look at its fangs. Tigers, panthers, and even scimitar-tooths have canines that are circular in cross-section. This common design helps prevent the teeth from fracturing. But Smilodon's canines were long and narrow, making them far easier to break. By taking a bite out of struggling targets, the big cat risked snapping a tooth. So, just to be safe, it probably immobilized its dinner first, using those forelimbs.

Then, Smilodon might have used its teeth used to cleanly slice through its prey's jugular and windpipe. But some scientists hypthosize that, based on its strong neck, the cat might have repeatedly stabbed its prey, slasher movie–style, by thrusting its head back and forth. Then again, this seems like an awkward technique—especially when a bite to the throat or abdomen no doubt meant death via blood loss. 

8. THOUSANDS OF SMILODON BONES HAVE BEEN FOUND AT THE LA BREA TAR PITS. 

via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This Los Angeles, Calif. landmark has yielded more than 130,000 Smilodon bones—and counting—which represent at least 2000 individual animals.

Why’d they all gather here? A vicious cycle was at work. Whenever some big vegetarian like a mammoth or bison got stuck in the tar, it would attract predators—who were also ensnared. Their own corpses drew over still more flesh-eaters, adding to the body count. Ultimately, around 90 percent of La Brea’s fossils came from assorted carnivores.

9. ODDS ARE, SOME SPECIES WERE DROOLERS.

Dallas Krentzel, via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Like Smilodon, Xenosmilus' teeth demanded a specialized mouth—so, as researcher Virginia Naples explained to LiveScience, “It had to have lips that could stretch to allow the jaws to open wide, so the lips must have been bigger and looser than modern cats … It probably had jowls like a St. Bernard, and probably drooled like one, too.”

10. SMILODON CANINES GREW RAPIDLY.

Lauren Anderson, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

While an adolescent lion’s canines grow approximately 3 millimeters (0.1 inches) every month, Smilodon’s came in at twice that speed, according to a recent analysis by a team of researchers from four U.S. institutions. They reached this estimated rate by looking at the oxygen isotopes in teeth from La Brea Smilodon specimens. Cubs had baby sabers, which the team concludes were shed when they reached 20 months of age or so. Afterwards, permanent adult ones began coming in. At about age three, young Smilodon had fully-formed, 7-inch canines.

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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10 Biting Facts About Snapping Turtles
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Here in the Americas, lake monster legends are a dime a dozen. More than a few of them were probably inspired by these ancient-looking creatures. In honor of World Turtle Day, here are 10 things you might not have known about snapping turtles.

1. THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE IS NEW YORK'S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE.

Elementary school students voted to appoint Chelydra serpentina in a 2006 statewide election. Weighing as much as 75 pounds in the wild (and 86 in captivity), this hefty omnivore’s natural range stretches from Saskatchewan to Florida.

2. ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES CAN BE LARGE. (VERY LARGE.)

An alligator snapping turtle
NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Utterly dwarfing their more abundant cousin, alligator snappers (genus: Macrochelys) are the western hemisphere’s biggest freshwater turtles. The largest one on record, a longtime occupant of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, weighed 249 pounds.  

A monstrous 403-pounder was reported in Kansas during the Great Depression, though this claim was never confirmed.  

3. COMMON SNAPPERS HAVE LONGER NECKS AND SPIKIER TAILS.

Alligator snappers also display proportionately bigger heads and noses plus a trio of tall ridges atop their shells. Geographically, alligator snapping turtles are somewhat restricted compared to their common relatives, and are limited mainly to the southeast and Great Plains.

4. BOTH VARIETIES AVOID CONTACT WITH PEOPLE.

If given the choice between fight and flight, snapping turtles almost always distance themselves from humans. The animals spend the bulk of their lives underwater, steering clear of nearby Homo sapiens. However, problems can arise on dry land, where the reptiles are especially vulnerable. Females haul themselves ashore during nesting season (late spring to early summer). In these delicate months, people tend to prod and handle them, making bites inevitable.

5. YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET BITTEN BY ONE. 

Snapping turtle jaw strength—while nothing to sneeze at—is somewhat overrated. Common snapping turtles can clamp down with up to 656.81 newtons (N) of force, though typical bites register an average of 209 N. Their alligator-like cousins usually exert 158 N. You, on the other hand, can apply 1300 N between your second molars.

Still, power isn’t everything, and neither type of snapper could latch onto something with the crushing force of a crocodile’s mighty jaws. Yet their sharp beaks are well-designed for major-league shearing. An alligator snapping turtle’s beak is capable of slicing fingers clean off and (as the above video proves) obliterating pineapples.

Not impressed yet? Consider the following. It’s often said that an adult Macrochelys can bite a wooden broom handle in half. Intrigued by this claim, biologist Peter Pritchard decided to play MythBuster. In 1989, he prodded a 165-pound individual with a brand new broomstick. Chomp number one went deep, but didn’t quite break through the wood. The second bite, though, finished the job.

6. SCIENTISTS RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT THERE ARE THREE SPECIES OF ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES.

A 2014 study trisected the Macrochelys genus. For over a century, naturalists thought that there was just a single species, Macrochelys temminckii. Closer analysis proved otherwise, as strong physical and genetic differences exist between various populations. The newly-christened M. suwanniensis and M. apalachicolae are named after their respective homes—namely, the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Further west, good old M. temminckii swims through the Mobile and the Mississippi.

7. THANKS TO A 19TH CENTURY POLITICAL CARTOON, COMMON SNAPPING TURTLES ARE ALSO KNOWN AS "OGRABMES." 

Snapping turtle cartoon
Urban~commonswiki via Wiki Commons // CC BY PD-US

Drawn by Alexander Anderson, this piece skewers Thomas Jefferson’s signing of the unpopular Embargo Act. At the president’s command, we see a snapping turtle bite some poor merchant’s hind end. Agitated, the victim calls his attacker “ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

8. ALLIGATOR SNAPPERS ATTRACT FISH WITH AN ORAL LURE …

You can’t beat live bait. Anchored to the Macrochelys tongue is a pinkish, worm-like appendage that fish find irresistible. Preferring to let food come to them, alligator snappers open their mouths and lie in wait at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. Cue the lure. When this protrusion wriggles, hungry fish swim right into the gaping maw and themselves become meals.

9.  … AND THEY FREQUENTLY EAT OTHER TURTLES. 


Complex01, WikimediaCommons

Alligator snappers are anything but picky. Between fishy meals, aquatic plants also factor into their diet, as do frogs, snakes, snails, crayfish, and even relatively large mammals like raccoons and armadillos. Other shelled reptiles are fair game, too: In one Louisiana study, 79.82% of surveyed alligator snappers had turtle remains in their stomachs.

10. YOU SHOULD NEVER PICK A SNAPPER UP BY THE TAIL.

Ideally, you should leave the handling of these guys to trained professionals. But what if you see a big one crossing a busy road and feel like helping it out? Before doing anything else, take a few moments to identify the turtle. If it’s an alligator snapper, you’ll want to grasp the lip of the upper shell (or “carapace”) in two places: right behind the head and right above the tail.

Common snappers demand a bit more finesse (we wouldn’t want one to reach back and nip you with that long, serpentine neck). Slide both hands under the hind end of the shell, letting your turtle’s tail dangle between them. Afterwards, clamp down on the carapace with both thumbs.

Please note that lifting any turtle by the tail can permanently dislocate its vertebrae. Additionally, remember to move the reptile in the same direction that it’s already facing. Otherwise, your rescue will probably turn right back around and try to cross the road again later. 

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