Guest Videos: Unearthing Sabertooths

Okay, technically this was a nimravid, not a true cat, but if you lived in North America some 35 million years or so ago and saw Hoplophoneus, you’d probably be screaming, “Sabercat!”

And then afterwards, while you were standing there feeling foolish because Hoplophoneus is no bigger than today’s lynx, a giant “hell pig” or bear would get you.

Eocene times were not for the fainthearted — even middle-sized cat-like critters needed those saberteeth!

Paleontology, on the other hand, requires patience, and lots of it.

Smilodon is much closer to us in time, but digging up its fossils isn’t easy, even in a natural carnivore trap like La Brea:

No saberteeth in this find. She is examining the long-dead sabercat’s ulna (a foreleg bone).

Fangs? You want fangs?

Well, we’re into digging today, but this video, which is about a tar pit that’s much less well known than La Brea, ends with a view of Smilodon’s fangs.

It’s not mentioned in that video, but what fascinates paleontologists about these Venezuelan tarpits is that the fossils uncovered there include not only Smilodon — everyone’s favorite sabercat — but also Homotherium.

I believe this was the first time (jargon alert) that South American Homotherium fossils had been positively identified.

Reconstructing sabertooths

So, just what do these fossils tell experts about ancient cats?

Here is a video can show you that a little.

Based on finds at a Miocene carnivore trap in Europe, it focuses on a cone-toothed ancestor of modern cats, and possibly one of the first cats to spend some time on the ground. (Not that there is anything wrong with life in the trees!)

This site in Spain has also yielded many fossils of the sabercats Macheroidus and Promegantereon. (If people had been around back then, such cats would have much more personal names.)

How do they know what those ancient cats looked like?

Paleoartists use their knowledge of modern cats and their habitats to make the most likely reconstruction.

Since the artwork shown in that video is by Mauricio Antón, here is another brief clip of him discussing his work.

Antón’s illustrations in one of the first science papers I checked after deciding to write about how cats evolved, got me really interested in learning everything I could about these beautiful extinct cats.

And if you are really curious about these reconstructions and also want to learn more about sabertooths, here is a full talk Antón gave in 2020:

Bonus factoid: Clouded leopards, featured at that “trees” link above, have the longest canines of any modern cat, in proportion to body size (tigers have the longest fangs overall); while this makes scientists curious, it does not necessarily make clouded leopards sabertooths.

Smilodon & Company had longer necks than modern cats, a much more powerful front end, and other, more subtle physical signs of the sabertooth complex.

Not only do clouded leopards lack most of these features, they also have upper and lower canines of the same length. For some experts (jargon alert), sabercats are best defined by their unusually small lower canines, about the size of incisors!

Check it out some time — it’s true about those lower canines.

Just don’t get within biting distance, in case the museum is having one of those nights.

James St. John, via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

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