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)
If so, that was a wise move on the part of S. gracilis — its larger relative was not a cat to mess with.
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.
Edited October 19, 2019.
Featured image: Dallas Krentzel, CC BY 2.0
Antón, M. 2013. Sabertooth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
San Diego Zoo. 2009. Saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis. http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/_extinct/smilodon/smilodon.htm 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.