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10 Fun Facts About Saber-Toothed Cats

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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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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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