The sabertooth cat (Smilodon fatalis), one of the most iconic extinct mammal species, was likely to be a social animal, living and hunting like lions today, according to new scientific research. The species is famous for its extremely long canine teeth, which reached up to seven inches in length and extended below the lower jaw.
Instead of relying on the bones and teeth of the sabertooths to make their findings, scientists from UCLA and the Zoological Society of London concluded that the sabertooth cat was social by using a novel technique: They compared numbers of present-day carnivores competing for kills in Africa with those of mainly extinct species found in a North American fossil deposit.
The research is published in the current issue of the Royal Society's journal Biology Letters (Oct. 28). Co-authors also included scientists from South Africa's Tshwane University of Technology and University of Pretoria.
Smilodon existed in North and South America between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago and is one of the most common species preserved at the Rancho La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles, a fossil deposit in which dying herbivores trapped in sticky asphalt attracted numerous dire wolves and sabertooth cats, some of which also died there.
Because most living cats are solitary, controversy has persisted over the social life of Smilodon.
The study reported in Biology Letters took a new approach to the question by comparing data from the La Brea fossil record and data obtained from "playbacks" used in Africa, in which the recorded calls of distressed prey and the sounds of lions and hyenas are used to attract carnivores. This technique has been used by scientists to estimate carnivore densities in eastern and southern Africa.