BSCI392
12-7-07
Sabretooth cats

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For the last lecture - kitties!!


From Merck's Nature Photos

I am a cat person and could say lots about these animals, but here, we concentrate on a biomechanical issue that cats, above all other creatures, exemplify: The sabretooth morphotype. Everyone knows the image of the sabretooth cat. Theirs was a modestly diverse radiation of the Neogene, during which they were roughly as diverse as other large cats. Humans shared their world with them for most of our history, however they were extinguished at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch about 11,000 years ago. And yet sabretooth cats were only the last of a series of synapsids to develop the sabretooth morph. Others include:

Carnivoran phylogeny (Paleogene - Recent) is very intuitively clear:

A significant synapomorphy: Upper premolar 4 and lower molar 1 are transformed into carnassials blade-like teeth that cut meat with a scissor-like action. (Note, creodonts also had carnassials but they were not formed by homologous teeth!)

Nimravidae (Paleogene - Neogene) - One group of feliforms are worth noting. The nimravids are the first branch off the feliform tree, however their members convergently evolved cat-like features. Among them were sabretooth forms that are very similar to sabretooth cats, such as Barbourofelis pictured below. Remarkable considering that proper cats are more closely related to hyenas, mongooses, and civets.


The nimravid Barbourofelis from Olduvai George

Like Thylacosmilus and Machaeroides Barbourofelis had long thin canines and muscular forelimbs.

Felidae (Paleogene - Recent) - True cats appear near the Paleogene - Neogene boundary. The first well known fossil felid is Proailurus from the latest Paleogene of Eurasia.


Proailurus from The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner, illustrations by Mauricio Antón

Proailurus was about the size of a bobcat or lynx, but its proportions were very different. With short limbs and a flexible vertebral column, it is thought to have been arboreal, climbing in the manner of the living Malagasy fossa (a viverrid, not a cat). Proailurus and other early cats didn't have specialized canine teeth. By the early Neogene, however, a split had occurred between:

Biting cats: Diagnostic characters include:
  • Robust conical upper and lower canines.
  • A relatively small (45deg) gape
  • A large coronoid process (The structure onto which the jaw muscles insert. I.e. the "in-lever.")
  • Small mastoid processes at the rear of the skull
Overall, the skull of a biting cat is optimized for a powerful bite and the ability to withstand bending forces.

A biting cat

Sabretooth cats: Diagnostic characters include:
  • Long, blade-like (i.e. mediolaterally flattened) upper canines. Impressive but weak in mediolateral bending.
  • Lower jaw modified for protecting the upper canines from mediolateral bending when the jaw is closed.
  • Reduced lower canines
  • A relatively wide (up to 90 deg) gape
  • A reduced coronoid process (The structure onto which the jaw muscles insert. I.e. the "in-lever.")
  • Large mastoid processes at the rear of the skull
Sabrecat skulls are optimized for a wide gape and strong downward flexion of the neck, but not for a strong bite or the ability to withstand bending.

A sabretooth cat

This contrast is, if anything, more apparent in anterior view: Panthera leo, the African lion. A biting cat.


Panthera leo from The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner, illustrations by Mauricio Antón

The muzzle is short and the zygomatic arches (cheek bones) are wide. The skull accomodates lots of jaw musculature.

Machairodus giganteus, a lion-sized sabretooth cat.


Machairodus giganteus from The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner, illustrations by Mauricio Antón

The muzzle is long and the zygomatic arches (cheek bones) are narrow, constraining the mass of jaw musculature.

The postcrania of sabretooth cats are distinctive as well. Contrast the general limb proportions of a leopard:


A leopard (Panthera pardus from Haryana Online

and the Pleistocene Holarctic sabretooth cat Homotherium (with hyena for fun). (Note: During the last glaciation, Homotherium ranged across northern Eurasia and North America. In North America, its range overlapped with the American sabretooth Smilodon.


Homotherium and Crocuta from The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner, illustrations by Mauricio Antón

Thus, it seems that whereas sabretooth cats were weak in their bites, they (like other sabretooth mammals) were very strong in their forelimbs and necks. How did their feeding strategies contrast with those of biting cats?

Large biting cats are known for using a suffocating bite in which they clamp their jaws around the preys muzzle, holding its mouth shut. This allows them to kill large prey, but requires them to bite strongly, holding onto struggling prey with their jaws.


African lion kills wildebeast The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner, illustrations by Mauricio Antón

A sabretooth cat was clearly not up to this, as the action of struggling prey would risk breaking the canine teeth. Possible strategies might include:

Recent work indicates that the key to the sabretooth strategy lies in the powerful forelimbs: