Growing up saber-toothed: Strong from the start

by Mary Caperton Morton
Thursday, February 15, 2018

During the Pleistocene, saber-toothed cats were formidable predators, with their massive canines and powerful front legs sporting razor-sharp claws. The bones of saber-toothed cats are thicker and more robust compared to those of other large cats, both modern and extinct. And previous studies of Smilodon have shown that their forelimbs in particular featured several adaptations, including thickened cortical bone, which would have increased strength, presumably useful in subduing ambushed prey.

In a new study, Katherine Long of California Polytechnic State University in Pomona and colleagues examined more than 200 limb bones from juvenile Smilodon fatalis of varying ages preserved in the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, which researchers used to create a growth chart for the species.

The team expected the young saber-toothed cats to show more robust growth compared to other cats — starting out a similar size but then growing faster and thicker — but the researchers instead found that saber-toothed kittens were born exceptionally strong, and followed very similar growth curves as modern species of large cats such as mountain lions and Siberian tigers.

“This is consistent with the idea that [Smilodon fatalis] were ambush predators rather than pursuit predators, and used their powerful forelimbs to quickly wrestle prey to the ground and pin it before slashing its vulnerable throat or belly with their saber-like canines,” they wrote in PLOS ONE.

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