We’ve Been Drawing These Saber-Tooth Cats All Wrong

Close your eyes and film being face-to-face with a saber-toothed cat. Most possible you’ll see in your frightened thoughts’s eye the lengthy, curved higher canines — notably sinister as a result of these dagger-shaped tooth remained in full view, even when the cat closed its mouth.

What seems in your creativeness could also be incorrect, at the very least for a species of saber-toothed cat that was one of the crucial widespread in Earth’s historic historical past. In a examine revealed final month within the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, a workforce of researchers argues that many inventive reconstructions of Homotherium latidens are flawed. Depictions of the cats with pointy tooth on the prepared must be revised, as a result of the animal’s defining function was a hid weapon till the cat was able to strike or in any other case opened its mouth.

Homotherium latidens was “the most powerful saber-tooth cat of the Old-World Pleistocene,” Mauricio Antón, a paleontological artist, professional on saber-toothed cats and one of many examine’s authors, stated. According to the fossil document, Homotherium first appeared round 4 million years in the past, in the course of the Pliocene. The species ranged from the southernmost tip of Africa, throughout Eurasia and into South America. A fossil website in Friesenhahn Cave in Texas recommended that teams of Homotheriums could have hunted cooperatively to deliver down mammoths. The species fell extinct 10,000 years in the past.

The cat was the dimensions of a lion, weighed as much as 550 kilos, and had lengthy, scimitar-shaped, serrated higher canines. In a paper Mr. Antón wrote in 2009, he concluded, “The tips of the sabers of Homotherium would have been visible in life, protruding beyond the lips,” even when the cat was at relaxation. In different phrases, Homotherium match the stereotypical profile of the saber-toothed cat.

But extra just lately, Mr. Antón started to marvel if he and different paleontological researchers have been getting the cat’s lethal dentition flawed.

For a long time, nearly every little thing that scientists knew about saber-toothed cats got here from fossils and dissections of recent huge cats. “When you dissect a dead big cat, the lips are in particular position because the muscles that control the lips are relaxed,” Mr. Antón stated. “That was where our data came from.”

Then in 2016, whereas watching a movie he had fabricated from a powerful, yawning male lion within the Okavango Delta, Mr. Antón seen one thing he had by no means seen earlier than: “The lower lip was contracting as the mouth was closing, and before full closure, it was enveloping the tip of the canine. I was like, ‘Am I really seeing this?’ It was a Eureka moment.”

To perceive the implications of his statement, Mr. Antón and a workforce of scientists studied residing huge cats in minute element. They checked out fossil dissections with what Mr. Antón described as “new eyes.” And they made a 3-D CT scan of an intact, three-million-year-old fossil of a Homotherium latidens that had been excavated in Perrier, France.

Gema Siliceo, a postdoctoral researcher at Comenius University in Slovakia and co-author of the examine, stated that combining these strategies offers “a huge amount of information that we can use to infer the life appearance of an extinct felid.”

Their research confirmed that there merely wasn’t room for the decrease lip and mushy tissue to suit between Homotherium’s higher canine and the gum. But there was room for the canines to be hidden in opposition to the enclosed a part of the decrease mandible or jaw.

Whatever their aesthetics, saber-toothed cats remained horrifying predators. Unlike fashionable huge cats equivalent to lions and tigers, the slender, blade-like tooth of Homotherium have been “precision weapons,” stated Mr. Antón. “Once the sabers cut the arteries of the neck,” he added, “the animal lost blood very quickly and would pass out in seconds.”

A lion’s higher canines are round 1.5 inches lengthy. Homotherium’s have been 3 inches lengthy. Those of the biggest saber-tooth cat, the 900-pound Smilodon fatalis, could have been 6 inches lengthy, which is why the brand new findings don’t apply to the tooth of the Smilodon: no jaw might accommodate such a tooth.

Even so, the examine’s authors marvel the place detective tales equivalent to this one may lead subsequent. “We know around 30-40 species of saber-toothed cats,” stated Dr. Siliceo, “but there are still many others to be found.” Even this yr, scientists in China described a beforehand unknown dwarf sabretooth and one other the dimensions of a jaguar.

According to Mr. Antón, this may very well be simply the beginning. “We have a whole biosphere in museum drawers just waiting to be discovered.”

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