Of Sabertooths and Tigers

Fact:  Modern cats and sabertooths come from two different cat-family groups.

If you have ever searched the Web for “sabertoothed tiger,” you’ve seen some articles and websites that say it never existed.

They’re right, and here’s why.

The cat family – extinct sabertooths and modern felines – comes from the pseudaelurine complex of cats whose fossils go back to around 15 to 20 Ma (million years ago). (Werdelin and others)

We’re interested here in two particular group members:

  1. Pseudaelurus quadridentatus: The type species – i.e., the original fossil cat named “Pseudaelurus” – is this leopard-sized cat that prowled Europe during the middle Miocene. P-Quad had unusual upper canines that vaguely resembled saberteeth. They weren’t very extreme, but combined with other, more subtle features, they suggest that sabercats evolved from this cat. (Antón; Rothwell; Turner and others)
  2. Styriofelis lorteti: This middle-Miocene Eurasian cat was the size of a large lynx and, like all pseudaelurines, looked a lot like a modern cat. It also had cone-shaped upper fangs, like today’s cats. Although Lorteti went extinct at the end of the middle Miocene, it lasted long enough to found the line of modern felines. (Salesa and others; Werdelin and others)

So, after pseudaelurines first appeared, sabertooths and modern cats took very different evolutionary paths.

This is why there never was a sabertoothed tiger, even though sabertoothed cats and tigers shared the world from at least 2 Ma (Luo and others) until the end of the last ice age, when the sabercats finally disappeared.

Featured image: Sabertoothed cat Homotherium (left) by Sergiodlarosa. CC BY-SA 3.0.  Tiger (right), by Hollingsworth, John and Karen, retouched by Zwoenitzer. Public domain.

Antón, M. 2013. Sabertooth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Luo, S-J; Kim, J-H.; Johnson, W. E.; van der Welt, J.; Martenson, J.; and others. 2004. Phylogeography and genetic ancestry of tigers (Panthera tigris). PLoS Biology. 2(12):e442.

Rothwell, T. 2003. Phylogenetic Systematics of North American Pseudaelurus (Carnivora: Felidae). American Museum Novitates. 3403:1-64.

Salesa, M. J., Antón, M., Morales, J., and Peigné, S. 2011. Functional anatomy of the postcranial skeleton of Styriofelis lorteti (Carnivora, Felidae, Felinae) from the Middle Miocene (MN 6) locality of Sansan (Gers, France). Estudios Geológicos. 67(2):223-243.

Turner, A., Antón, M., Salesa, M. J., and J. Morales, J. 2011. Changing ideas about the evolution and functional morphology of Machairodontine felids. Estudios Geológicos. 67(2): 255-276.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 5982. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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