JAN 10, 2021 1:45 PM PST

A Cuter Look at Saber Tooth Tigers

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Recent work has suggested that saber tooth tigers aren't the terrifying predators they seem to have been; they may have tended more toward acting like cubs than warriors. Reporting in iScience, researchers have characterized the remains of a family of saber tooth cats that were discovered in Ecuador in the early 1960s. This work has suggested that although these cats, Smilodon fatalis, grew rapidly, they seem to have remained with their mothers before breaking out on their own for longer than many other large cats we know would have.

Sabre-toothed cubs playing / Credit: Illustration by Danielle Dufault © Royal Ontario Museum

"This study started out as a simple description of previously unpublished fossils," said Ashley Reynolds of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) who led the study while performing her graduate research in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. "But when we noticed the two lower jaws we were working on shared a type of tooth only found in about five percent of the Smilodon fatalis population, we knew the work was about to become much more interesting."

After making that determination, more work suggested that the samples probably represent three relatives: one adult and two juvenile cats. The younger cars seem to have been at least two years old when they died. But many big cats that live in our world now are already independent at that age.

The cats in this study likely died in a catastrophic mass death event, unlike other specimens that have been collected from locations known as predator traps like La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. All of the animals in the Ecuador deposit died at the same time, and as such, can provide researchers with a snapshot of their habitats, which may reveal other information.

"The social lives of these iconic predators have been mysterious, in part because their concentration in tar seeps leaves so much room for interpretation," explained study co-author Dr. Kevin Seymour, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at ROM. "This historic assemblage of sabercat fossils from Ecuador was formed in a different way, allowing us to determine the two juveniles likely lived, and died, together; and were therefore probably siblings."

"These world-famous collections made 60 years ago have been studied for years, but a measure of their importance is that they continue to produce new insights into the lives of these extinct animals" added Dr. David Evans, Temerty Chair of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and Reynolds's thesis supervisor.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Royal Ontario Museum, iScience

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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