A New Saber-Toothed Cat

Monday, February 01, 1999
RELATED TAGS: ENDANGERED SPECIES
In north central Florida there is a sinkhole that local fossil collectors call Hog Heaven. Paleontologists have unearthed the remains of dozens of large wild hogs called peccaries from the site, as well as the skeletons of two saber-toothed cats, all of which died about 1 million years ago. "It looks like the saber-toothed cats were bringing home pork for the kittens," says paleontologist Larry Martin of the University of Kansas.

The cats from Hog Heaven are unique for more than their penchant for pork--they are the first specimens of a new and particularly fearsome species of saber-tooth, bringing the total number of known North American species to three. The new cat, which has not been officially named, combines some of the deadliest features of the other two species. Like Smilodon (the picture-book example of a saber-tooth), it had a powerful, stocky build. "And like Homotherium, it had broad, knifelike teeth that are very coarsely crenulated, and then a projecting set of long, curved incisors that are serrated like a steak knife," says Martin, who studied the new cat along with fossil collector John Babiarz and paleontologist Virginia Naples of Northern Illinois University.

"The way it worked is that when it took a bite, these two knife blades--the sabers--would cut parallel slits in the prey; then the incisors would come down and cut out the middle between the slits, taking a big strip of meat." The cat's long jaw muscle gave it extra force when clamping down. "Homotherium may have killed in the same way," says Martin. Smilodon, on the other hand, hunted by stabbing its prey with its furiously long and thin curled canines.

Like Smilodon, the Florida cat had short, powerful legs. "It would have been built like a bear, not a cat," says Martin, who guesses that it weighed around 400 to 500 pounds--about the size of an African lion. With those short legs, the cat wouldn't have been able to run down its prey, as the speedier Homotherium most likely did. Instead it would have waited in ambush, hiding in the tall savanna grasses that once covered the region.

"It was the largest, most ferocious sabertooth in the world at that time," says Martin of the Florida specimen. "If I were going to choose who would win a bout of mortal combat," he adds, "I'm not sure that this thing wouldn't clean Smilodon's --or Homotherium's--plow."
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