The Dead Zoo: Smilodon

This sharp-toothed cat wasn't as vicious as its reputation suggests.

The Dead Zoo: Smilodon
Smilodon fatalis at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. Credit: Brian Switek

Smilodon looks like a cat evolved for violence. The feline’s fangs – long enough to inspire fear, just short of being ridiculous – seem to leave little question as to what this Ice Age carnivore was all about, and they have driven scientific inquiry about the cat's habits ever since its discovery. To envision Smilodon is to see a panting cat in a trampled and bloodied clearing, crimson and gore coating the beast's muzzle.

Smilodon isn't alone in this. We’ve been obsessed with prehistoric violence ever since naturalists started to classify the creatures who once lived on this planet. It’s no coincidence that some of the earliest canonical depictions of prehistoric life were by John Martin, an English artist heralded for his ability to convey Biblical catastrophes on canvas. His County of the Iguanodon and cover art for Book of the Great Sea Dragons fit his Old Testament aesthetic, bug-eyed, reptilian monsters biting and clawing at each other in the ancient dark. Little has changed in our depictions since then. We see horns or armor and we expect to see how they would be used in defense. Sharp teeth must be employed, and claws need flesh to rend. Time travelers beware. The prehistoric world was one of unending violence.

Smilodon is just another victim of the trend. In paint, reconstructed bones, and scientific papers, we expect to see Smilodon snarl. What’s the point of discovering an extinct cat that can throw its jaws open frighteningly wide if you don’t show it? There are rare exceptions, though. My favorite is a mounted skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History, the sabercat's jaws closed and its body poised as if the predator were peering out over its Ice Age domain. And it’s this particular osteological depiction that I try to remember when I think of Smilodon.

Turn back the clock to visit the La Brea asphalt seeps when Smilodon was more than piles of tar-stained bones and you’d be more likely to see the cat snoozing than ripping the throat out of a giant camel. To some extent, cats are cats are cats. The calico snoozing behind my laptop as I write this is as much a representation of the family as the great Smilodon fatalis. And if there’s anything that cats are excellent at, it’s sleeping. Today’s big cats are all champion sleepers, and that’s not counting the amount of time they simply spend lazing and lolling while awake. Smilodon would have been no different.

Of course Smilodon surely did its share of stalking horses and ambushing camels in its day. The anatomy of the cat’s teeth, as well as the dietary clues drawn from them, leave no question there. But Smilodon can't simply be boiled down to its diet. While it’s tempting to fall back on the French anatomist Georges Cuvier’s supposed saying “Show me your teeth and I will tell you who you are,” such an approach turns Smilodon into a disproportionate beast – a feline homunculus dedicated to nothing but eating. Look beyond the teeth and a different cat steps forward.

The great sabertooth of La Brea was probably a social carnivore. That may seem strange, especially as many of today's big cats are solitary, but that's the way the evidence shakes out. So many Smilodon have been found at La Brea that they’re second only to the dire wolves (themselves unquestioned as pack hunters). Compare that to the relatively scanty abundance of the site’s other extinct cat, the American lion. By bone count alone, it’s not a stretch to suspect that Smilodon might have had prides of their own. On top of that, the behavior of modern carnivores may offer a peek at Smilodon sociality.

In a 2009 study, zoologist Chris Carbone and colleagues used playback experiments on the African savanna to see who would show up to the distress calls of an herbivore ringing the dinner bell. Lions and spotted hyenas, both social species, homed in on the racket and made up 84 percent of the animals who showed up. (Little, social jackals came in third.) In short, it was social predators and not solitary ones that were most likely to show up to the noise of dying prey. Now imagine the sound of a tar-trapped mammoth or horse, and who might be most likely to try to make the most of that savory opportunity. Instead of lining up one-by-one, Smilodon may have tried to dine family style.

The fossil record only offers us so much. Even if someone were to find a completely intact Smilodon covered in flesh and fur, we’d still have plenty of questions to ask about how the cat actually lived. (Think of all the animals alive today of which we know little, or, worse, have misinterpreted despite being able to watch them.) As it is, we have teeth and bones and tracks, and the process of science demands that we use those as starting points for testable ideas. Still, fossil species are not the sum of the published literature about them. If our aim is to understand once-living animals, we need to treat them as such and not as ranks of inert bones. Studies and depictions of Smilodon bites and predatory predilections all have their place. Cats gotta eat. But these represent only small slices of the carnivore’s reality. The next time you are fortunate enough to stand next to the bones of the sabercat, take a moment to look beyond the sharp-toothed snarl. Think of the cat reclining in the shade with its mates, flies lazily buzzing above a pile of dozing carnivores. There was softness to even the sharpest cat.

More profiles in this series:

Tyrannosaurus | Stegosaurus | Uintatherium | Edmontosaurus

Brian Switek
Brian Switek
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Brian Switek

Brian is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus, Written in Stone, and other books. He also writes the Laelaps blog for Scientific American and publishes on fossil discoveries in outlets from Smithsonian to the Wall Street Journal.

See all posts by Brian Switek