Smilodon is an extinct genus of machairodont felid. It is one of the most famous prehistoric mammals, and the best known saber-toothed cat. Although commonly known as the saber-toothed tiger, it was not closely related to the tiger or other modern cats. Smilodon lived in the Americas during the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 mya–10,000 years ago). The genus was named in 1842, based on fossils from Brazil. Three species are recognized today: S. gracilis, S. fatalis and S. populator. The two latter species were probably descended from S. gracilis, which itself probably evolved from Megantereon. The largest collection of Smilodon fossils has been obtained from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California.

S. populator (green), S. fatalis (purple), and S. gracilis (orange) shown to scale by Matthew Martyniuk

Smilodon was around the size of modern big cats, but was more robustly built. It had a reduced lumbar region, high scapula, short tail, and broad limbs with relatively short feet. Smilodon is most famous for its relatively long canine teeth, which are the longest found in the saber-toothed cats, at about 28 cm (11 in) long in the largest species, S. populator. The canines were slender and had fine serrations on the front and back side. The skull was robustly proportioned and the muzzle was short and broad. The cheek bones (zygomata) were deep and widely arched, the sagittal crest was prominent, and the frontal region was slightly convex. The mandible had a flange on each side of the front. The upper incisors were large, sharp, and slanted forwards.

S. populator skull and syntype canine from Lund’s collection, Zoological Museum, Copenhagen. Author: FunkMonk

Overall, Smilodon was more robustly built than any extant cat, with particularly well-developed forelimbs and exceptionally long upper canine teeth. Its jaw had a bigger gape than that of modern cats, and its upper canines were slender and fragile, being adapted for precision killing. S. gracilis was the smallest species at 55 to 100 kg (120 to 220 lb) in weight. S. fatalis had a weight of 160 to 280 kg (350 to 620 lb) and height of 100 cm (39 in). Both of these species are mainly known from North America, but remains from South America have also been attributed to them. S. populator from South America is perhaps the largest known felid at 220 to 400 kg (490 to 880 lb) in weight and 120 cm (47 in) in height. The coat pattern of Smilodon is unknown, but it has been artistically restored with plain or spotted patterns.

In North America, Smilodon hunted large herbivores such as bison and camels, and it remained successful even when encountering new prey species in South America. Smilodon is thought to have killed its prey by holding it still with its forelimbs and biting it, but it is unclear in what manner the bite itself was delivered. Scientists debate whether Smilodon had a social or a solitary lifestyle; analysis of modern predator behavior as well as of Smilodons fossil remains could be construed to lend support to either view. Smilodon probably lived in closed habitats such as forests and bush, which would have provided cover for ambushing prey. Smilodon died out at the same time that most North and South American megafauna disappeared, about 10,000 years ago. Its reliance on large animals has been proposed as the cause of its extinction, along with climate change and competition with other species, but the exact cause is unknown.

Smilodon californicus fossil at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. Author: Ryan Somma

Long the most completely known saber-toothed cat, Smilodon is still one of the best-known members of the group, to the point where the two concepts have been confused. The term “saber-tooth” refers to an ecomorph consisting of various groups of extinct predatory synapsids (mammals and close relatives), which convergently evolved extremely long maxillary canines, as well as adaptations to the skull and skeleton related to their use. This includes members of Gorgonopsia, Thylacosmilidae, Machaeroidinae, Nimravidae, Barbourofelidae, and Machairodontinae. Within the family Felidae (true cats), members of the subfamily Machairodontinae are referred to as saber-toothed cats, and this group is itself divided into three tribes: Metailurini (false saber-tooths); Homotherini (scimitar-toothed cats); and Smilodontini (dirk-toothed cats), to which Smilodon belongs. Members of Smilodontini are defined by their long slender canines with fine to no serrations, whereas Homotherini are typified by shorter, broad, and more flattened canines, with coarser serrations. Members of Metailurini were less specialized and had shorter, less flattened canines, and are not recognized as members of Machairodontinae by some researchers. 

The earliest felids are known from the Oligocene of Europe, such as Proailurus, and the earliest one with saber-tooth features is the Miocene genus Pseudaelurus. The skull and mandible morphology of the earliest saber-toothed cats was similar to that of the modern clouded leopards (Neofelis).

Along with most of the Pleistocene megafauna, Smilodon became extinct 10,000 years ago in the Quaternary extinction event. Its extinction has been linked to the decline and extinction of large herbivores, which were replaced by smaller and more agile ones like deer. Hence, Smilodon could have been too specialized at hunting large prey and may have been unable to adapt.  A 2012 study of Smilodon tooth wear found no evidence that they were limited by food resources. Other explanations include climate change and competition with humans (who entered the Americas around the time Smilodon disappeared), or a combination of several factors, all of which apply to the general Pleistocene extinction event, rather than specifically to the extinction of the saber-toothed cats.


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