Posts Tagged ‘scimitar-tooth’

A Geriatric Saber-tooth and Other Odd Vertebrate Fossils

August 15, 2012

Many vertebrate fossils look familiar, even to laymen.  The average man on the street could identify the complete reconstructed skull of a Smilodon.  Other relatively common fossils are so easily recognizable that the amateur novice fossil collector can quickly learn to ID them.  It’s not hard to discern the difference between a mammoth and mastodon tooth, and after a little practice the difference between a horse and tapir tooth is quite apparent.  Size alone makes bones such as a femur of a proboscidean distinguishable from that of a bison.  But the chances are just as likely that a fossil collector will stumble upon a bone so odd it creates a mystery.  The hyoid bone is one example that without consulting a book, I’d never be able to identify.

A comparison of hyoid bones from 3 closely related species of proboscideans–Africans elephants, Indian elephants, and Columbian mammoths.  The hyoid bone is the tongue bone.

A Neanderthal hyoid bone.  About a dozen muscles including the tongue are attached to it.  It’s more often found with one of the ends broken off.

Who besides a medical doctor or trained vertebrate paleontologist would have thought this bone rests a few inches above the pharynx?  Usually, only half of this u-shaped bone is found, and it resembles an erect penis.  A dozen muscles are attached to this bone including the tongue, so in laymen’s terms it can be known as the tongue bone.  Howler monkeys may have the largest hyoid bones in the animal kingdom.  It makes the area below their chins ovoid in shape, and it aids the high volume of their howls.

Howler monkeys have big hyoid bones.  Situated above the pharynx, it contributes to the monkey’s ability to loudly vocalize.

Other odd fossils may be hard to ID, simply because they’re  so nondescript.

Woolly Mammoth heel bone (Calcaneum).

The calcaneum or heel bone looks like an uninteresting rock.  In the living animal it’s attached by ligaments and tendons to the astralagus or ankle bone which is much more interesting to examine.

Camel astralagus or ankle bone.

Many fossils are unusual due to morphology.

Giant ground sloth bone with a puncture mark made by a big cat of some kind.

The above fossil is interesting because of the cat canine puncture mark on it.  A big cat either killed this baby ground sloth or scavenged it.  Cats eat fresh kills far more often than they scavenge.  It seems likely the cat killed this unfortunate animal.  How did it get past the mother ground sloth?  Adult ground sloths were much larger than any cat species, and had claws and armoured hides under thick fur.  I’m sure the mother wouldn’t give up their offspring without a fight.  Perhaps, the young sloth wandered too far from the protective vicinity of its mother.  Which species of cat did the damage?  I say jaguar, but the scientists who examined the specimen believe it was a scimitar tooth (Dinobastis serum).  Jaguars have a more powerful bite and their canine can easily puncture bone.  The fanged cats didn’t have as powerful a bite–I’m not sure it would’ve punctured bone.  But if it is from the scimitar-tooth, we are looking at the results of a confrontation between 2 extinct mammals never to be seen again.

Many vertebrate bones also show evidence of invertebrate activity.  A fossil collector gave me a piece of a dugong bone with holes made by burrowing clams. (See  It’s the third article down in the April 2010 archives.) Terrestrial vertebrate bones occasionally have holes made by burrowing beatles.  Vertebrate bones with this kind of morphology are evidence the fossils rested on top of the ground or within topsoil for years.

Smilodon Vertebrae fused together from arthritis.

The photo above shows that a tough old Smilodon, aged enough to develop arthritis, still survived for years despite its ailment.  A high incidence of severe injuries occurred among the population of saber-tooths that left specimens found in the La Brea tar pits.  Apparently, these big cats wrestled large, heavy-bodied prey to the ground before killing the beast by slicing through the soft throat with their fangs.  They often suffered the kinds of injuries a human might get from lifting too much weight.  But they survived these debilitating injuries, suggesting to some scientists that they lived in prides and took care of each other.  However, other scientists think they were not social animals for 2 reasons: they have relatively small brains compared to those of lions, and the vast majority of cat species are solitary.  I agree with the those who think Smilodon was a solitary species.  I think saber-tooths could survive serious injuries because even a partially crippled one was more than a match for most other carnivores, and they could drive them from their kills, not unlike the way Clint Eastwood chased away young punks in his movie, El Camino.


Pleistocene Fossil Felid Ratios from the University of Florida Database

January 16, 2012

I followed the same procedure from last week’s study but counted the number of cat fossils in the University of Florida’s Natural History Museum database instead of dog fossils.  I only counted fossils dating from the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age 300,000 BP-11,000 BP.  The results may be off a little because I was scrolling down while looking at a computer screen.  The results may also be misleading because many specimens may come from just 1 individual.   Nevertheless, I think the data reveals a good estimate of the ratio of species composition during the Pleistocene.

Listed on the University of Florida Museum of Natural History database, I counted 46 jaguar (Panthera onca) specimens, 21 giant panther (Panthera atrox) specimens, 42 saber-tooth (Smilodon fatalis) specimens, 6 scimitar-tooth (Dinobastis serum) specimens, 41 cougar (Puma concolor) specimens, 46 bobcat (Lynx rufus) specimens, 12 river cat (Leopardus amnicola or weidii) specimens and 1 ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) specimen.

The results are similar to those reported by the amateur fossil collectors who post on the fossil forum.  The most significant difference between their reports and database information is abundance of jaguar to saber-tooth abundance.  Amateur fossil collectors claim jaguar fossils are much more common in Florida than saber-tooth, though they do collect the latter and some have found scimitar-tooth specimens as well which are rare in the database.  It may be that the UF database includes a skeleton of a saber-tooth accounting for multiple specimens from 1 individual.

Dire wolves accounted for 64 specimens in my previous study, making them 33% more common, at least in the fossil record than any single species of big cat.  Overall, big cats combined outnumbered dire wolves 156 to 64, making large felines more than twice as common as dire wolves.  Perhaps there was less competition among species of canids, but more among felids.

Pleistocene habitats favorable to various species of big and small cats varied widely.  Mesic oak forests and cypress swamps, which expanded during warm interglacials and interstadials, favored jaguars, river cats, and ocelots.  Jaguars are adabtable enough to live in desertlike brush conditions which were common during cold arid stadials.  Cougars and bobcats thrive in many different types of environments.  The exact environments favored by giant panthers, saber-tooths, and scimitar-tooths is unknown, but it’s likely they were capable of adapting to many different ecotones.

Saber-tooths were evidently one of the most common large carnivores south of the ice sheets in North America.  They were actually no larger than a modern day jaguar.  Saber-tooths never colonized Eurasia, but a distant cousin, the scimitar-tooth had close relatives that did live from the southern tip of Africa to Alaska.  Scimitar-tooths also had longer front legs but these were more slender than those of the saber-tooth.  Their fangs were also smaller and more curved.  In Africa, Asia, and Europe scimitar-tooths became extinct much earlier than saber-tooths did in America.  I suspect they never learned to fear man, explaining their earlier extinction.  I suggest fanged cats didn’t often back down from anything.  Scimitar-tooths probably colonized southeastern North America during stadials when grasslands expanded due to dry climate which in turn caused an increase in the populations of ungulates. 

Giant panthers probably resembled large maneless lions.  True lions did live in Alaska and across Eurasia.  But south of the ice sheets in North America, the common ancestor split into 2 different species–Panthera atrox and Panthera onca.

8 cat 10 Biggest Cats in the History

This image comparing Pleistocene jaguars with modern jaguars may be a slight exaggeration, but jaguars did grow bigger during the Pleistocene because they preyed on larger mammals and had more competition among carnivores.

I’ll write more about the presence of margays and ocelots in Pleistocene Florida in my next blog entry.

Here are some related articles about big cats from my archives.

“Panthera atrox! What Kind of Cat was it?”–

“Why did fanged cat have sloping backs and large forelimbs?”–

“Two new studies of saber-tooths.”–

“Cougars vs. jaguars”–

Why did Fanged Cats have Long Forelimbs and Sloping Backs?

October 8, 2010

Until about 13,000 calender years ago, two species of large, powerful, fanged cats stalked the beautiful forests and plains of southeastern North America.

Smilodon depicted in top illustration; Dinobastis on the bottom.

The more famous saber-tooth (Smilodon fatalis) is well known from the thousands of specimens found in the La brae tar pits in California, but many have also been discovered in Florida, and some fossils of them have turned up in Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina.  Fossils of the scimitar-tooth (Dinobastis serus) are less common–nearly complete skeletons in North America only being discovered in Friesenhahn Cave, Bexar County, Texas, though individual specimens have been found in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Florida, and some western states, such as Alaska.  This latter species had a worldwide distribution, leaving fossils in what today is England as well as Africa.

Sketch of skull found in Friesenhahn Cave from The Bulletin of the Texas Memorial Museum number 2 September 1961.

The skulls of both species of fanged cats are similar, but the two differ greatly in dentition.  The scimitar-tooth had larger incisors, but its fangs or canines were shorter and smaller.  Smilodon’s fangs were serrated in front; Dinobastis’s were serrated on both sides. When Smilodon closed its mouth, the fangs extended lower than the jaw, while Dinobastis’s fangs only reached the bottom of the jaw.

Both species had longer forelimbs than hindlimbs.  The scimitar-tooths had even longer forelimbs than the saber-tooth’s, but they weren’t quite as heavily built.

Based on anatomical characteristics, scientists believed saber-tooths and scimitar-tooths were closely related, and a recent study of DNA supports this hypothesis.  They are considered a sub-family within the Felidae.  The fanged cats are in the Machairodontinae, while all other cats, including every extant species, are considered to be in the Felinae.  See:

The fanged cats had a sloping back, much like modern day hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), and likely ran about in a gait that would have resembled that of a hyena.  I’ve often wondered why they were built like this.  Some scientists speculate the longer forelimbs gave them an advantage when hunting juvenile proboscideans.  But it occurred to me after watching videos of a hyena fighting off a pack of wild African hunting dogs, that perhaps this build made it easier for them to do battle with packs of wild canids, such as their most important ecological competitor, the dire wolf, though dholes or red Indian dogs also occurred in the central part of North America during the Pleistocene, and were probably an important competitor there as well.

Perhaps with a sloping back, it was easier for the fanged cats to sit on their haunches and use their paws and fangs to defend themselves against packs of wolves that would’ve tried to nip them from behind and even bite their hamstrings.

Cats are distantly related to hyenas.  The cat branch on the evolutionary tree is placed next to the hyena branch, and the machairodontinae sub-family is the closest cat related to the hyenas.  The trait of a sloping back and longer forelimbs evolved millions of years before the Pleistocene, perhaps originating with some common ancestor of hyenas and cats.

Friesenhahn Cave in Bexar County, Texas

This is a really nice sketch of Friesenhahn Cave from the previously mentioned periodical.  The artist’s name isn’t given.

A sinkhole on a cattle ranch in south central Texas opens to an ancient cave where thousands of Pleistocene age fossils have been preserved.  Two nearly complete skeletons of the scimitar cat were discovered here about fifty years ago, along with the skeletons of two scimitar cat kittens.  This species periodically must have used the cave as a den for millennia.  The Pleistocene-age fossils are dated from between 19,000-17,000 years BP.  Some other fossils in the cave date to 9,000 BP, and some are even more recent, dating to less than 300 years BP.   Scientists believe the surrounding environment was mostly arid grassland, but occasional heavy rains (due to the drastically fluctuating Ice Age climate) caused flash floods that washed sediment into the cave, burying the bones of dead animals.  Later, the cave entrance collapsed, sealing the bones from the atmosphere.  Moreover, the limestone in the soil contributed to the preservation of the fossil material.  The sinkhole formed recently, providing the opportunity for people to discover the cave.

Thousands of baby mammoth teeth were recovered here–evidence that scimitar cats ambushed them and dragged them in the cave.  Though a pond that existed in the cave may have attracted herbivores seeking drinking water, the sheer number of individual baby mammoth specimens that accumulated here must have been the result of scimitar-tooth cat predation.  Scimitar-tooth cats must have specialized in preying on juvenile proboscideans–baby mastodon teeth were found here too.  How they successfully hunted baby mammoths, guarded by adults, is a mystery.  I assume they ambushed ones that wondered too far from the herd.

In addition to the scimitar cat fossils, the cave was the final resting place for many other Pleistocene animals.  One tooth of the other fanged cat, Smilodon fatalis, was found here along with many coyote fossils, and some of black bear.  Other remains include mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, deer, bison, horse, camel, tapir, long-nosed peccary (a nearly complete skeleton), flat-headed peccary, black-tailed jack rabbit, cottontail rabbit, eastern chipmunk, pocket gopher, bog lemming, pine vole, eastern mole, short-tailed shrew, desert shrew, giant tortoise, box turtle, aquatic turtles, toads, snakes, and lizards.  There may be some human artificats, but nothing definite because it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish natural artifacts from manmade ones.

Scientists think the Pleistocene environment that existed at the time the specimens were deposed is one that no longer occurs anywhere.  They believe that what was to become Bexar County was mostly an arid grassland interspersed with riparian woodlands consisting of deciduous trees.  It is strange that the desert shrew, a species of the southwest desert, lived near the eastern chipmunk which lives in moist woodlands.  And indeed grassland species (bison, horse, camel, mammoth) and woodland species (mastodon, deer, long-nosed peccary, tapir) both found suitable habitat near the cave.