Temporal range: Late Pliocene to Late Pleistocene
|Smilodon fatalis skeleton: National Museum of
Natural History, Washington DC.
†Smilodon fatalis; †Smilodon gracilis; †Smilodon populator
Smilodon populator (1mya to 10kya) was a large, heavy species from eastern South America. It was 1.2 m high at the shoulder, 2.1 m (83 in) long on average. With an estimated weight of 220 to 400 kg, it was among the heaviest known felids. Its upper canines reached 28 cm (11 in) and protruded up to 17 cm (6.7 in) out of the upper jaw.
Smilodon fatalis (or S. californicus; 1.6mya to 10,000 years ago) was the famous cat known from the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. The tar, a bit like asphalt, has yielded about a million bones of late Pleistocene mammals, of which 162,000 bones are from Smilodon, representing perhaps 1200 individuals. The cat was about about the size of a female lion, but weighed more, perhaps 200kg. It was about 1 metre tall at the shoulders.
Method of attack [change]
The front limbs on these cats were longer and stronger than modern cats, and from that, and its teeth, its method of attack must have been different. An educated guess would be: they were an ambush predators, which clung on round the neck of their prey, and slashed at the underside of the throat. This contrasts with the method of the modern lion, which brings down its prey by weight of numbers, and clamps its jaws over the prey's nose and mouth. The prey dies of suffocation.
Smilodon's niche was closer to a leopard's, which is also an ambush predator. They both need cover to get close to prey. Smiloddon had relatively short legs and a short, bobbed tail. Its front legs were especially powerful. Its body was adapted for springing onto prey, but it was not a very fast runner.
Fauna and flora in the Smilodon's environment [change]
During the last Ice age, there were the following possible prey species from the La Brea location: Mammoths and Mastodons; Ground Sloths; Bison, Camel; Horse; Peccary; Pronghorn; Tapir; Deer (Elk and others). Most of these went extinct by 5 to 10,000 years ago. The pressures of a major climate change and human hunting were thought to be the main causes.
The climate at the time was much cooler than today, with more plant cover. Juniper, Oaks, Ragweeds, Cedars, Redwoods, Sagebrush, Sycamore, Thistle and Walnut grew in the environs. Both the herbivores and vegetation were essential for its mode of life. Smilodon survived so long as enough animals and vegetation.
- Turner A. 1997. The big cats and their fossil relatives. Columbia N.Y.ISBN 0-231-10229-1
- Christiansen P. and Harris J.M. 2005. Body size of Smilodon (Mammalia: Felidae). J. Morphology 266, 369–384. online
- The Rancho La Brea tar pits are in Hancock Park in the heart of Los Angeles. The specimens are displayed in the George C. Page Museum in the park.
- African female lions average weight: 120kg.