fossil cats Sabertoothed cats the cat family

Smilodon Times Three

As scary as Smilodon cats must have been, something terribly beautiful left the world when they finally disappeared.

Everybody has heard of Smilodon, even if they can’t name any of the other sabertoothed cats that have terrorized the planet over the last 12 milliion years or so.

But did you know that there were at least three different Smilodons?

We must use scientific names for them, because our ancestors, who were around during the sabercats’ reign, left no record of what they called these beasts. (Antón)

“Smilodon” is the genus. The oldest known species is S. gracilis, as big as a modern jaguar. (Antón) Its fossils have been found in South America as well as the eastern and central US. (Wallace and Hubert)

Next came S. fatalis, the glamour puss of this group. Lion-sized but more powerful than a modern tiger (Antón), Fatalis lived all over North America, including in what’s now Los Angeles, where its remains at La Brea inspired Californians to make Smilodon the state’s official fossil and to cast this sabercat in a movie role – Ice Age.

And then there was S. populator, the largest sabertooth carnivore that has ever lived. (Antón)

It evolved in South America and stayed there instead of heading into Central and North America. Some experts think it shared the continent with Gracilis, with the Andes as a dividing line. (San Diego Zoo)

Using a mountain chain as a territorial marker seems less strange when you realize that Populator was almost 4 feet high at the shoulder and weighed over 800 pounds. (Antón)

Compare the size of its tracks in this video with the human shown near it.

This was a behemoth!

But as scary as Smilodon cats must have been, something terribly beautiful left the world when they finally disappeared.


Featured image: Smilodon populator. Cope, E. D. 1880. On the extinct cats of America. American Naturalist. xiv (12):833-857, figure 12.

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

San Diego Zoo. 2009. Saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis. Accessed August 15, 2017.

Wallace, S. C., and Hulbert, Jr., R. C. 2013. A new machairodont from the Palmetto Fauna (Early Pliocene) of Florida, with comments on the origin of the Smilodontini (Mammalia, Carnivora, Felidae). PLoS ONE. 8(3): e56173.


About BJ Deming

After getting an associate's degree in forestry, I studied geology as an undergraduate back in the 1980s but went into medical transcription instead. It just worked out better for me. The Internet renewed my interest in geoscience as a hobby, and when I retired in 2014, I decided to write a book about cat evolution. That started a new career for me (enormous fun but not self-supporting yet). Right now, besides blogging I am finishing up the first two books in a self-published ebook series about the cat family and its history. Thanks for your interest!

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