Literature Review: Sabertooth Studies

by Carl Strang

Saber-toothed predators have evolved in several mammalian families. A couple interesting studies of them appeared last year in the journals I follow.

Steven C. Wallace, Richard C. Hulbert. 2013. A new machairodont from the Palmetto Fauna (Early Pliocene) of Florida, with comments on the origin of the Smilodontini (Mammalia, Carnivora, Felidae). PLoS ONE,; 8 (3): e56173 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056173  They describe Rhizosmilodon fiteae, a 5 million year old ancestor of the sabertooth cat Smilodon, from Florida, and conclude that Smilodon (which first appeared in the fossil record 2.5 million years ago) evolved in North America.

Meachen-Samuels, Julie A. 2012. Morphological convergence of the prey-killing arsenal of sabertooth predators. Paleobiology 38:1-14. She looked for correlations between saber tooth and forelimb morphology in nimravids (late Eocene-early Miocene), Barbourofelis (late Miocene), and sabertooth cats (late Miocene-Pleistocene). Felids are thought to have replaced nimravids in the “sabertooth niche.” The saber teeth have dirk-tooth forms (very elongated, laterally compressed, serrations fine or absent) and scimitar-tooth forms (less elongated, less compressed, often coarsely serrated). Dirk-toothed species have been thought to be ambush predators with more robust limbs, scimitar-tooth forms more cursorial with lighter limbs suitable for running down prey. Some, in the felid genus Xenosmilus, combined scimitar teeth with robust limbs, however. Present day large cats have strong limbs for holding prey, and kill with choke-hold bites that require round or conical, short canines for strength. Saber canines are more fragile, and unsuitable for choke holds. Saber toothed species generally proved to be more robust than the present-day conical toothed species, with larger muscle attachment points, and also had wider paws. This was especially true of nimravids, which are thought to have been tree climbers. Dirk-toothed species were somewhat more robust than scimitar species. There are several known co-occurrences of conical, dirk and scimitar species, including locations in California, Idaho and Florida. Prey apparently were subdued with the strong forelimbs, then killed with the saber teeth. Meachen-Samuels suggests that some nimravids were tree climbers, but most sabertooth species were not, an additional support being their short tails (long tails are associated with tree climbing in many present day species).

I don’t have a sabertooth photo, but the final paper applies broadly to extinct animals including mastodons.

I don’t have a sabertooth photo, but the final paper applies broadly to extinct animals including mastodons.

Sherkow, Jacob S., and Henry T. Greely. 2013. What if extinction is not forever? Science 340:32-33. In this review article the authors summarize possibilities, technical challenges and ethical considerations for bringing back extinct species through methods including back-breeding (where surviving species contain among them the genome of an extinct relative), cloning (using genetic material from museum specimens, for instance nuclei from somatic cells, to create germ egg cells), and genetic engineering (sequencing the genomes from museum specimen DNA, and editing DNA in cells from living forms to produce a match).

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