We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

A New Saber-Toothed Cat

Feb 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:21 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

In north central Florida there is a sinkhole that local fossil collectors call Hog Heaven. Paleontologists have unearthed the remains of dozens of large wild hogs called peccaries from the site, as well as the skeletons of two saber-toothed cats, all of which died about 1 million years ago. "It looks like the saber-toothed cats were bringing home pork for the kittens," says paleontologist Larry Martin of the University of Kansas.

The cats from Hog Heaven are unique for more than their penchant for pork--they are the first specimens of a new and particularly fearsome species of saber-tooth, bringing the total number of known North American species to three. The new cat, which has not been officially named, combines some of the deadliest features of the other two species. Like Smilodon (the picture-book example of a saber-tooth), it had a powerful, stocky build. "And like Homotherium, it had broad, knifelike teeth that are very coarsely crenulated, and then a projecting set of long, curved incisors that are serrated like a steak knife," says Martin, who studied the new cat along with fossil collector John Babiarz and paleontologist Virginia Naples of Northern Illinois University.

"The way it worked is that when it took a bite, these two knife blades--the sabers--would cut parallel slits in the prey; then the incisors would come down and cut out the middle between the slits, taking a big strip of meat." The cat's long jaw muscle gave it extra force when clamping down. "Homotherium may have killed in the same way," says Martin. Smilodon, on the other hand, hunted by stabbing its prey with its furiously long and thin curled canines.

Like Smilodon, the Florida cat had short, powerful legs. "It would have been built like a bear, not a cat," says Martin, who guesses that it weighed around 400 to 500 pounds--about the size of an African lion. With those short legs, the cat wouldn't have been able to run down its prey, as the speedier Homotherium most likely did. Instead it would have waited in ambush, hiding in the tall savanna grasses that once covered the region.

"It was the largest, most ferocious sabertooth in the world at that time," says Martin of the Florida specimen. "If I were going to choose who would win a bout of mortal combat," he adds, "I'm not sure that this thing wouldn't clean Smilodon's --or Homotherium's--plow."

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.