by James M. Hale
The California Saber-Toothed Cat (Smilodon fatalis californicus) was an apex, keystone carnivore that lived locally throughout the East Bay during the Pleistocene epoch, from 2.5 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, preying on large herbivores such as bison, mammoths, camels, and giant ground sloths. The middle to late Pleistocene was the age of the enormous beasts known as Rancholabrean megafauna, after the famous Rancho La Brea tar pits, which yielded one of the greatest concentrations of diverse fossils. Situated in downtown Los Angeles, its tar-impregnated stream deposits have yielded the remains of 42 mammalian and 133 avian species as well as many other vertebrates, insects, plants, and others. More than one thousand two hundred individuals of the great Sabertooth (Smilodon fatalis californicus), California’s state fossil, have been identified. Archaeologist E. Breck Parkman estimates that perhaps 450 Sabertooths inhabited the Bay Area. He further suggests that 227,000 bison, 35,000 horses, 7,000 camels, 1,450 mastodons, 725 Columbian mammoths, and 400 dire wolves shared the Bay Area’s diverse habitats with these giant cats.
The genus Smilodon was named in 1842 , based on fossils from Brazil. Three species are recognized today: S.gracilis, S. fatalis and S. populator. Smilodon was built more robustly than any extant cat, with particularly well-developed forelimbs and exceptionally long upper canines adapted for precision killing. Unlike modern large cats, Smilodon had a short tail. The front and back limbs were about the same length, with strong retractable claws. S. gracilis was the smallest at 120 to 220 pounds in weight. S. fatalis had a weight of 350 to 620 pounds and a height of 40 inches at the shoulder. S. populator is the largest known felid at 490 to 880 pounds, with one estimate suggesting up to 1,040 pounds and a height at the shoulder of 47 inches. The structure of the hyoid bones suggest that Smilodon communicated by roaring, like modern big cats. The coat pattern of Smilodon is unknown, with convincing arguments for plain, spotted and striped patterns. The genus name for Smilodon means “tooth shaped like double-edged knife” in Ancient Greek. The species name fatalis means “fate” or “destiny”, however it probably was intended to mean ”fatal”. The famously long canines, up to 11 inches long, were slender with fine serrations on the front and back sides. They were more resistant to bending and breaking than round canines. Smilodons jaw gape is enormous, approaching 130 degrees, compared to around 65 degrees for modern large cats. The gape was necessary for food items to get past the long canine teeth. Analysis of the narrow jaws indicates that it could produce a bite only a third as strong as that of a lion. Smilodon was thought to have killed its prey by holding it still with its forelimbs and biting it. It is unclear in what manner the fatal bite itself was delivered. Most Smilodon fossils are found in sediments from plains or woodland environments.
The California Saber-toothed Cat was similar in size and shape to the modern African Lion, with an affinity to similar habitats where it pursued large herbivores like bison, giant ground sloths, horses and mammoths. It ranged throughout the western United States where it competed with the American Lion (Panthera leo) and the Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) for prey. Tooth wear in fossils suggest Smilodon probably avoided eating bone as it had no bone crushing teeth, and may have associated with large scavengers like hyaenas. Smilodon was most likely an ambush predator that concealed itself in dense vegetation. Its long heel bone suggests it was a good jumper. Exactly how Smilodon killed its prey is debatable. The most popular hypothesis is that the cat delivered a deep stabbing bite or open-jawed stabbing thrust to the throat, generally cutting through the jugular vein and/or the trachea and thus killing the prey very quickly. Alternatively, it may have used its “sabers” to puncture the thoracic wall of its prey with a closed-mouth stab, thus collapsing the preys lungs. Another hypothesis suggesting Smilodon attacked the belly of its prey has been disputed.
There is considerable debate among scientists as to whether Smilodon was a social predator. One study focuses on whether Smilodon was attracted to distress calls of prey. Another study for sociality is based on the healed injuries in Smilodon fossils, which would suggest that the animals needed others to provide food. Neither study offers definitive conclusions. The California Saber-Toothed Cat (Smilodon fatalis californicus) went extinct around 10,000 years ago in the Quartenary extinction event. Its extinction has been linked to the decline and extinction of the large herbivores. Whether humans (Paleo-Indians) killed off the megafauna herbivores that Smilodon relied upon for food, or climactic changes brought about by the end of the last glacial period did them in, or both, the magnificent creatures that had flourished for more than 240,000 years (some for much longer) suddenly died off. In just 1,500 years, most of them vanished forever.
James M. Hale is a wildlife biologist, ethnobiologist and ecological consultant based in Contra Costa County.