They were iconic critters of the last ice age, even before the Ice Age movies were popular. But how much do you really know about the saber-toothed tigers?
What exactly is a saber-toothed tiger?
Their scientific genus is Smilodon, and there were three species that we know of — S. gracilis, S. populator, and S. fatalis (definitely the coolest name). Most Smilodon fossils have been discovered in L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits, but we know they made it all the way down to South America. They hunted big herbivores like camels and the American bison, and their name comes from the big scary teeth, like gigantic vampire fangs. They were heavily built and might have looked more like a big bulldog than a modern lion, with short legs and a powerful chest and shoulders. Despite their common name, they aren’t directly related to modern tigers at all and come from a subset of the cat family which is now completely extinct.
How tough were they, really?
They were bigger than any of the big cats today — S. populator weighed up to 400 kg (880 lbs)! The “saber” teeth may have been up to 11 inches long and were likely used to deliver a killing blow after they latched on with their powerful arms. Judging by their jaw shape, smilodons didn’t bite as hard as a modern lion, but they could open their mouths almost twice as wide — probably necessary, so they would have room to get those giant teeth into the target. Some evidence suggests that they hunted in packs and tracked their prey by sound, and they may have had striped or spotted fur to blend into their surroundings and ambush their food. So, try to imagine a cat a little bigger than today’s biggest lions, with fangs as big as your forearm, hiding in the tall grass and waiting to jump you from behind … with their friends backing them up.
What other facts do we know?
Some things are just too hard to determine from bones, but by comparing them to modern cats, we can make a lot of good guesses. From the shape of the mouth, we can tell they had a very loud roar. We know they had very short tails, probably to help them stay hidden for ambushing. We believe the males and females were pretty similar in size and shape, which some scientists believe means they would mate in pairs, rather than competing between the males like modern lions. We aren’t sure how smart they were, but their brains weren’t very big. And due to their size, they were probably not very fast runners — another reason we think they preferred to hide and pounce on large animals, rather than chasing smaller ones.
Why did they die out?
We don’t know for sure why they aren’t around anymore. Their fossil records show that they were pretty adaptable and able to learn how to hunt new prey when moving into new territory (e.g., South America). It looks like they went extinct about 10,000 years ago, along with a lot of other animals in the Americas. It’s unlikely that humans hunted them to death, but we may have “out-competed” them by hunting the same food they hunted. On the other hand, it might have been climate change that did them (and some of the other megafauna of the ice age) in — perhaps they just couldn’t get used to the new warmer temperatures.