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

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.   


(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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.”


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.

Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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