Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Here’s the awesomely misleading headline from Science Daily: “Saber-toothed Cat Was More Like A Pussycat Than A Tiger.”
The new paper appears in the early online edition of PNAS: Supermodeled sabercat, predatory behavior in Smilodon fatalis revealed by high-resolution 3D computer simulation. The authors conclude that Smilodon did not have the bite strength of a modern lion, and probably didn’t kill large prey in the same way that lions do today–namely clamping down on the prey item’s trachea and waiting for it to asphyxiate.
Here’s how the lead author, Colin McHenry, visualizes the killing strategy of Smilodon, as quoted in the totally decent BBC article on the new study:
I think it was using its huge limbs and thumb-claws to wrestle large animals to the ground, and then when it’s got them there under control, that’s when the teeth come into play, and there’s one instantly fatal bite to the neck, severing the airway and carotid arteries to the brain. Death is more or less instantaneous.
You know…just like a “pussycat”!
Saber-toothed predators appear in several felid and non-felid lineages, including some marsupial lines (!), throughout the Cenozoic. But, without any surviving examples to draw on, many, many, many hypotheses have been put forward about saber-tooth function and purpose. The present modelling study is really interesting, but will hardly be the final word on the subject.
Brian wrote a piece on felid and nimravid saber-tooths a while back, and it’s well worth a re-read especially in light of the new paper.