how did the sabertooth cat wield its excess of tooth? note Kostich / iStock

Of every the vicious smiles come have ever before evolved, it’s hard to beat the grin the the aptly called Smilodon. The largest of this Ice age cats sported canines that were 11 inches long, through fine serrations offering the fangs even more of a cutting edge. Yet despite the fact that this felid has been famed for its dental cutlery ever because the beforehand 19th century, paleontologists are still make the efforts to number out just how it supplied its impressive teeth. Exactly how do you bite as soon as you have an overabundance of tooth?There’s no shortage of ideas around what Smilodon did with its ludicrously lengthy fangs. The 19th century paleontologists Richard Owen and Edward Drinker Cope, because that example, both said that Smilodon to be a living can-opener, those this being one adaptation to cut through the tough and often armored hides of huge sloths and substantial armadillos. Various other experts, such as paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, proposed that Smilodon used them to cut or stab. It was even argued that the palate of the great sabercat argued a propensity because that sucking, painting Smilodon as a sort of Ice period vampire.Sadly, there room no life Smilodon to study—the critical of these cats died out about 8,000 year ago—and the humans who certainly saw castle did not think to carefully record their feeding habits. On optimal of that, today’s large cats aren’t very helpful as analogs. Lions, because that example, have shorter, conical teeth and use “throttling bites” come clamp around the throats of big prey, clamping down the windpipe. This alternative wasn’t open to Smilodon. But thanks come reinvestigations the old bones and high-tech analysis, paleontologists room finally starting to acquire a manage on how Smilodon to work those terrible teeth.

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one artist"s imagining the a Smilodon looking into the grass at something threatening. Stocktrek Images, Inc. / Alamy

Part the the answer is to prevent thinking just around teeth and jaws. With an anatomist’s eye, various aspects of the Smilodon skull jump into focus as different from those of their living feline cousins. “The back and base of sabercat skulls tend to show really expanded and also bulky bony locations for the attachments of large neck muscles,” says Zhijie Jack Tseng, a paleontologist in ~ the State university of brand-new York in ~ Buffalo, “leading part researchers to suggest that food killing involved far-ranging contribution of neck power.”

A 2007 study by Colin McHenry and colleagues, for example, discovered that Smilodon had a bite only about a 3rd as an effective as a lion’s, however the fossil feline had actually bulky neck muscles the would have aided a fast killing stroke.Having saberteeth i will not ~ be that much benefit without a jaw may be to open up extraordinarily wide. That"s why plenty of sabercats likewise have modified reduced jaw joints that allowed the jaws come swing open up to clear those fangs, Tseng says. And also looking past the skull and also neck, Smilodon also had exceptionally muscular arms. Take away together, says Des Moines college paleontologist Julie Meachen, it"s likely that “Smilodon used its an extremely muscular neck and also forearms to help in the death bite.”Keeping prey pinned under was an essential to the process. Contrasted to today’s lions and also tigers, Tseng says, “the thin sabers suggest that, everything the killing behavior, that was more important for Smilodon to keep the food immobilized long enough to use the sabers so they don’t bend sideways in the direction of weakness.” This risk isn’t just theoretical: rarely specimens of Smilodon from the La Brea asphalt and other web page bear broken fangs.Envisioning how Smilodon killed the horses and also camels of its time, then, is not just about the bite. Smilodon didn"t have actually the proportions that a fast-running cat, Meachen says, meaning that the beast “probably would certainly stalk its prey from a covert position, climate leap out at prey and knock it turn off balance making use of its weight.” The arms came right into play at this moment, grappling and pinning the victim together the cat gained ready come inflict the deadly blow.

Here, however, us hit a freeze frame; there"s still some uncertainty about how Smilodon would have finest employed that teeth. “Either Smilodon would certainly rip out the prey’s throat,” Meachen says, “or it would certainly make a specific killing bite, severing the carotid artery and also then it would eliminate its teeth and also start eating.” either way, the would have been a huge mess.

Naturally, Smilodon wasn’t the just sabertooth around. The cat was among the last, the biggest and—thanks to the thousands of bones traction from the asphalt the La Brea—best-known, but sabertoothed carnives have advanced over and also over again transparent the background of life. Looking at the filiform next of the carnivoran family tree alone, sabertooths developed at least three times: both the true sabercats and two lineages of “false” sabercats called nimravids and barbourofelids. This raises the concern of whether sabercats may one day make a comeback.

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Some point to the clouded leopard of Asia has actually sometimes as having the potential to end up being the next sabertooth. The cat’s canines are long for that size; perhaps, end time and also with the right evolutionary nudging, the clouded leopard or an additional cat can take Smilodon"s place. Whether that ever happens, though, counts on the fate that today’s felids: Clouded leopards space currently noted as “vulnerable” ~ above the IUCN’s Red list of endangered Species.

“I think it’s possible, hypothetically in suitable world,” the a brand-new sabercat can evolve, Meachen says. “But ns think in the real word, most carnivores will become extinct due to habitat loss, hunting and climate change.” If we’re ever before going to see sabercats return, we’ll need to safeguard the imperiled cats roughly us today.