With an eye toward the past, an international team of researchers has delved into the mysteries of the sabertooth cat. This fascinating and diverse group of ancient predators once roamed the African continent around six to seven million years ago.
This time period is especially significant as it’s the same time hominins — the group to which modern humans belong — began their evolutionary journey.
From their detailed examination of one of the world’s largest collections of Pliocene-era fossils in Langebaanweg, just north of Cape Town in South Africa, the researchers have unearthed two previously unknown species of sabertooth cats.
Their findings, published on July 20 in the scientific journal iScience, also feature the first family tree of these formidable creatures from the region.
Senior author Alberto Valenciano (@paleo_alberto), a paleontologist at Complutense University, shares, “The known material of sabertooths from Langebaanweg was relatively poor, and the importance of these sabertoothed cats has not been properly recognized. Our phylogenetic analysis is the first one to take Langebaanweg species into consideration.”
In total, the team described four species, including the newly discovered Dinofelis werdelini and Lokotunjailurus chimsamyae. Dinofelis sabertooths were widespread, leaving their fossil traces in diverse corners of the globe, from Africa to China, Europe, and North America. The researchers had anticipated discovering a new species of this genus, based on previous investigations.
However, the unveiling of a new Lokotunjailurus species was an unexpected twist. Previously, this genus was known only from Kenya and Chad. This finding suggests a broader geographic range for Lokotunjailurus across Africa around 5-7 million years ago.
Valenciano was a postdoctoral fellow at the Iziko Museums of South Africa. This museum was the home to all the sabertooth fossils analyzed in the study. Together with his international colleagues from China, South Africa, and Spain, they pieced together this remarkable project.
In order to construct a family tree, the researchers meticulously classified the physical traits of each sabertooth species. From the presence or absence of teeth to the shape of their jaws, skulls, and teeth structures, they captured this information in a matrix. This allowed them to deduce how closely related each sabertooth species was to its evolutionary relatives.
Their investigation reveals that the population of Langebaanweg’s sabertooths, namely the Machairodontini, Metailurini, and Feline, reflects the rising global temperatures and environmental changes during the Pliocene epoch.
Specifically, the presence of Machairodontini cats, larger and capable of running at high speeds, suggests that the Langebaanweg region once hosted open grassland environments. However, the presence of Metailurini cats indicates the existence of more covered environments, like forests.
The coexistence of both these species suggests a diverse ecosystem of forests and grasslands in Langebaanweg 5.2 million years ago. Additionally, the higher ratio of Machairodontini species compared to other fossil sites in Eurasia and Africa signals a transition towards more open grasslands in southern Africa during this period.
The authors write, “The continuous aridification throughout the Mio-Pliocene, with the spread of open environments, could be an important trigger on the bipedalism of hominids. The sabertooth guild in Langebaanweg and its environmental and paleobiogeographic implications provide background for future discussion on hominid origination and evolution.”
In an intriguing development, the team also found that the mix of sabertooth species in Langebaanweg closely mirrored that of Yuanmou in China. This implies a possible close evolutionary relationship between the Yuanmou’s Longchuansmilus sabertooths and Africa’s Lokotunjailurus species.
First author Qigao Jiangzuo, a paleontologist at Peking University, says, “This suggests that the ancient environment of the two regions was similar or that there was a potential migration route between the Langebaanweg and Yuanmou.”
According to Romala Govender, a curator and paleontologist at the Iziko Museums in South Africa, more fossil evidence could bring further clarity to the relationships between these two sites. She says, “The two new sabertooths are only an example of the numerous unpublished fossils from Langebaanweg housed at Iziko in the Cenozoic Collections. This brings to the fore the need for new and detailed studies of Langebaanweg fauna.”
These new findings not only enhance our understanding of sabertooths but also open up fresh avenues for discussion and research in the broader field of paleontology. As we unravel these age-old secrets, we come closer to understanding the complex tapestry of evolution and environmental adaptation, woven millions of years ago.
Sabertooth Cats, also known as sabertooth tigers, encompass several species of prehistoric cats known for their iconic elongated upper canine teeth. They fall under the subfamily Machairodontinae within the family Felidae (true cats). Contrary to popular belief, sabertooth cats are not direct ancestors of modern tigers or lions. They do, however, share a common feline ancestor.
The Machairodontinae subfamily, home to the sabertooth cats, emerged during the Miocene epoch (23 million to 5.3 million years ago). This group split into four distinct sects: the Machairodontini, Homotherini, Metailurini, and Smilodontini. The most famous of these, the Smilodontini, included the iconic species Smilodon fatalis, commonly known as the sabertooth tiger.
Throughout their existence, sabertooth cats experienced significant variation in size and tooth shape. This is a testament to their adaptability to different environments and prey. However, they went extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). Scientists believe their extinction was likely due to a combination of climate change and the disappearance of large prey animals.
Sabertooth cats are most notable for their extended upper canine teeth. These enormous features could reach up to 11 inches (28 centimeters) in length in some species like Smilodon fatalis. These teeth, coupled with a strong jaw, made them lethal predators.
Contrary to popular belief, sabertooth cats’ teeth were not suitable for biting into bone. Instead, they used these formidable weapons to deliver precise, debilitating bites to the soft throats or bellies of their prey.
In addition to their striking teeth, sabertooth cats possessed robust bodies and powerful forelimbs. Some species, such as Smilodon, were short-limbed with barrel chests, indicating strength rather than speed. They also had retractable claws like modern cats, useful in hunting and climbing.
Paleontologists believe that sabertooth cats were carnivorous predators that hunted large herbivores. Evidence from fossil records suggests a diet that included bison, camels, and young mammoths.
The sabertooth’s hunting technique likely involved ambushing prey from a short distance. They probably used their powerful forelimbs to hold onto the victim before delivering a lethal bite with their long canines.
Sabertooth cats likely lived in social groups, as suggested by fossil evidence of healed injuries. Such healing indicates that injured individuals received care, which would likely occur in social groups.
Moreover, the abundance of Smilodon fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits suggests they might have lived and hunted in packs.
Fossils of sabertooth cats have been discovered on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The most extensive collection of Smilodon fatalis fossils comes from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. That area has provided a wealth of information about these captivating creatures.
The first scientific descriptions of sabertooth cats date back to 1842, when Danish naturalist Peter Wilhelm Lund described the genus Machairodus, based on fossils found in Brazil. However, the iconic Smilodon genus was not named until 1850, following discoveries in North America.
The sabertooth cats, with their iconic elongated canines and formidable hunting prowess, continue to fascinate scientists and the public alike. Although they have been extinct for thousands of years, ongoing research into their fossils continues to reveal intriguing details about their lifestyle, behavior, and place in prehistoric ecosystems. The sabertooth cat remains a symbol of prehistoric life and a testament to the wonder of natural evolution.