(California) and South America (Argentina) size: 4 ft/1.2 m long Smilodon was the classic sabertooth cat. Unlike most other cats, it had a short tail, like that of a modern bobcat. Its whole body was powerfully built, with the muscles of its shoulders and neck so arranged as to produce a powerful downward lunge of its massive head. The jaw opened to an angle of over 120 , to allow the huge pair of saber teeth in its upper jaws to be driven into the victim.
The sabers were oval in cross-section to retain strength, but also to ensure minimum resistance as they were sunk into the prey. They were also serrated
like steak-knives along their rear edges, so they pierced the victim's flesh more easily.
Smilodon probably preyed on large, slow-moving, thick-skinned animals, such as mammoths and bison. Unable to kill its prey with a quick bite to the neck, this sabertooth cat probably inflicted deep wounds in the victim's flanks or hindquarters, and then simply waited for it to bleed to death.
More than 2000 skeletons of Smilodon have been recovered from the Pleistocene tar pits of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, along with similar numbers of other carnivores, such as the dire wolf, Canis dims (see pp.219, 221). These animals had not yet developed the cunning of modern carnivores, and were lured into the tar by large animals already trapped there. The species of Smilodon found is S. californicus, and it has been adopted as the state fossil of California.
Another species of Smilodon, S. neo-gaeus, has been found in Argentina. It migrated from North America in Pleistocene times, once the land bridge between the 2 continents had been reestablished at the beginning of the Pliocene, about 5 million years ago.
name: Homotherium time: Early to Late Pleistocene locality: Africa (Ethiopia), Asia
and North America (Tennessee and
Besides sabertooth and dirktooth cats, there were also scimitartooth cats, so called because their death-dealing canines were shorter and flatter than those of the sabertooths. They also curved backward, like a scimitar's blade. The back teeth consisted of powerful, meat-shearing (carnassial) blades for slicing up flesh.
In profile, Homotherium must have had the sloping look of a hyena, since its forelegs were longer than its hindlegs. When it walked, the whole foot was placed firmly on the ground, as in a bear or a human. This is called "plantigrade" locomotion, and contrasts with most other cats, which walk on their toes (called "digitigrade" locomotion).
Homotherium survived until the end of the last ice age in the Pleistocene, about 14,000 years ago. Scimitartooth cats probably preyed on mammoths, since in Texas the remains of young mammoths have been preserved alongside the bones of a family group of scimitar-tooths. Homotherium may have become extinct when its prey died out in the northern continents at the end of the Pleistocene ice age (see pp. 242-245).
name: Dinofelis time: Late Pliocene to Middle
Pleistocene locality: Africa (South Africa), Asia (China and India), Europe (France) and North America (Texas) size: 4 ft/1.2 m long Dinofelis was a panther-sized cat, with flattened canines that were considerably shorter than those of the sabertooths, scimitartooths or even the dirktooths. But they were longer than those of the biting cats (those that kill their prey with a single, well-placed bite). It is therefore a matter of debate among paleontologists as to which subfamily of the felids Dinofelis belongs.
Dinofelis became extinct in Eurasia and North America during the Early Pleistocene, but survived in Africa until Mid-Pleistocene times. The Chinese species, D. abeli, is the largest-known form. The name Dinofelis means "giant cat," and the species name honours Professor Abel, an Austrian paleontologist.
name: Panthera time: Pleistocene to Recent locality: Africa (South Africa), Asia (India), Europe (England) and North America (California) size: up to 11 ft 6 in/3.5 m long Panthera leo, the modern lion, is found today in parts of Africa and in the Gir Forest of western India. A typical biting cat, its canine teeth are short compared with most extinct cats, and they are used to kill prey by biting through the bones and sinews of its neck and throttling it. The claws are long and sharp, and can be fully retracted into the foot by means of tendons. Each claw is tucked away neatly beneath a sheath of skin, and so is prevented from becoming blunt.
There are two notable extinct subspecies of lion. Panthera leo spelaea was the cave lion of Europe. It was probably the largest cat that ever lived, being about 25 percent larger than the modern lion, and even bigger than the largest living cat, the Siberian subspecies of the tiger, Panthera tigris altaica. Cave paintings and other archeological discoveries indicate that the cave lion existed until historical times in southeastern Europe; its last stronghold seems to have been in the Balkans, up to about 2000 years ago.
The other subspecies of extinct lion was Panthera leo atrox, which ranged throughout North America and was also found in northern South America. This subspecies evidently crossed to North America by way of the Bering Strait during the last ice age, about 35,000 to 20,000 years ago. At that time, the sea-level had fallen, and the Strait was dry land.
Remains of this lion have been found in Alaska. But the most famous fossils come from the tar pits of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, although they are scarcer than the remains of other carnivores. It seems this lion may have been intelligent enough to avoid the natural traps.
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