The problem is – there’s just so much we don’t know. How were its ears set on its head? What color was its fur? Was it a solitary hunter, or did it hunt in packs? For that matter, how did it use those huge sharp fangs to kill?
But – there is a lot we do know. It was big. And strong. And lethal.
Smilodon. Smilodon Fatalis. Fatalis is Latin for “deadly.”
It was a cat, of course, but not quite like modern lions, and tigers. Different subfamilies. Lions and tigers are in the subfamily pantherinae; Smilodon in the subfamily machairodontinae. Cats in that subfamily had long canines. Fangs.
As did Smilodon. Hence the popular name: saber-toothed tiger, or, less commonly, saber-toothed cat.
And those teeth were lethal. Long, serrated, and sharp. The word “Smilodon” itself reflects this – it is derived from the Greek word for “carving knife.”
So Smilodon Fatalis = deadly carving knife.
The cat itself was big. A big mature Smilodon could weighed up to, or even more than 500 lbs. But Smilodon was built differently than the large modern cats. Its legs were shorter, but very powerful, anatomically shaped to brace it against struggling prey. It had a shorter tail than modern lions or tigers. And its neck muscles were hugely strong, presumably used to help it with the killing bite it delivered.
It needed those strong neck muscles, because, oddly, its skull was not very strong; its bite only one third as strong as that of lions – when considering its jaw muscles alone. But of course, they didn’t operate alone – that’s where the neck musculature came into play.
Big, thick, stocky, strong as hell, but not terribly fast. So how did it hunt?
Good question: We don’t really know. It may have been a scavenger. But if it hunted, it was probably an ambush hunter. It certainly wasn’t designed to outrun its prey. Analysis of its skeletal remains suggests that it preyed primarily on horses and bison, big, strong and fast animals. So, built as it was, if it hunted them, it probably hunted from ambush, since both horses and (perhaps surprisingly) bison are very fast, and Smilodon couldn’t have outrun them.
In all likelihood it was opportunistic – scavenging when it could, hunted when the opportunity arose.
But whether it was a solitary hunter, or hunted in packs is not known. Some data suggest that it was a social animal, and hunted in packs, but as yet, there is no conclusive evidence either way.
And how did it use those incredible dagger teeth to kill? Again, the answer is not wholly clear. It seems most likely that it used its powerful legs and claws to hold prey while its immensely strong neck drove those daggers into the throat of the animal, severing windpipe and arteries alike. But . . . maybe not.
I like to think so, though, as set forth in another excerpt of my novel, below.
Like so many other large species of animals, Smilodon became extinct about 11,00 years ago, just as the continent was being populated by another, smaller predator – homo sapiens.
THis illustration is taken from Spectrumart.net, the website of talented illustrator Sorin Bulucianu. It’s the last thing that Ross saw.
* * *
Once we were caught in a huge thunderstorm. The air turned green and the evening was pregnant with silence. When the storm crashed over us, it was deafening. We were deluged with cascades of water, and lightning exploded all around us. One of the horses became frantic, and somehow broke the halter and ran off. We huddled the other horses together and sat crouched next to them.
In the dim light I thought I saw a large dark shape move silently past us. Then – a scream, and a snarl, a deep rasping guttural cough. When the storm let up, Lasher said, “You wait here. I’ll go after that mare.” So we waited. There wasn’t much to do – we had put our slickers on, and everything else was packed, so we didn’t have to spread anything out to dry. Lasher wasn’t gone very long. He came back with his rifle in his hand.
“Too late. Doesn’t matter.” he said. “Saber-toothed cat took her. Just over the next rise there.”
“I’m going to go see,” I said.
“Me, too” Devereaux said.
We rode over, cautiously, down a slight slope, across the rivulet that was running at the base of it, and then up a gentle rise. Below the crest of the hill we each got our rifles out. “Don’t shoot it unless you have,” I said to Devereaux. “I want to observe its behavior.”
The cat – Smilodon fatalis– was larger than I had imagined, more heavily built. Its coat was tawny, but with faint brownish rosettes. The horse was lying on its side, throat ripped out, but the cat was eating its entrails. It had opened its stomach, although, having seen it, I’m still unclear about how it used its dagger teeth to do that. It was a substantial animal – easily the size of a large tiger. Sleek, strong, heavily muscled. Even though it was lying down as it ate, I could see how massive its shoulder and forearms were. It must have smelled us, or sensed us, because it stopped eating and looked over at us. Except for the fangs, its head looked like the head of a bobcat or a lynx. Tufted ears, and a ruff around its cheeks. But those golden eyes: Cold, fierce, implacable. Very, very aggressive. Fearless.
We watched for a minute. Even Devereaux, usually so quick on the trigger, was stilled. Finally, after a minute, we backed the horses down and around and returned to camp.
But here’s the thing that kept me up that night. Where had it come from? We’d been travelling through fairly open country – grassland, primarily; not a lot of cover. And yet, this was the first we’d seen. Where did it hide? How did it hide? Where had it appeared from when it tracked and killed our runaway mare? Were there others? Where were they? How common were they? How, in that monster storm, had it tracked and killed our horse?
For all of the other predators we’d seen – the lions, the wolves, even the bear – I had some frame of reference. Even though they were all different from the predators of today, I thought I could understand their habits, their habitats, their behaviors. But this cat was something new, something unfamiliar. This cat was fearsome. That old archaic word finally came completely to life in this animal: Fearsome.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. There are other big solitary hunting cats: The jaguar, the mountain lion, the lynx, even the bobcat. And I know that the clouded leopard has teeth almost as long, in relation to its skull, as the sabers of Smilodon. But still: Here, on the open prairie, in competition with pack hunters, and killer bears, lives this big, fearsome cat. This, to me, was an amazing sight. I immediately wanted to spend the next several months studying it. How did it hunt? It was an ambush hunter, presumably. But how did it stalk its prey? What were its preferred prey animals? Was it exclusively a solitary hunter? What were its mating practices? How many kittens did it have? Is “kittens” even the right term for the offspring of that fearsome animal? Okay, I hope I’ve made my point now. I’ll stop using “fearsome.” But it was fearsome, truly.
* * *
Shhh! What was that?
Ross stood up, and looked around. Had those sneaky fuckers somehow found him? He froze, then slowly crouched and picked up one of the heavy spears he had. Not a gun, goddammit, but better than nothing.
Slowly he stood, and looked all around. Nothing. No-one in sight. But his instincts had been honed on battlefields all over the world, and he knew he’d heard something.
There – to his left, the grass moved.
He turned and crouched.
And saw widely spaced fierce yellow eyes. Oh shit. One of those saber-toothed tigers. Maybe twenty five feet away.
It saw him, too. And it didn’t turn away like it should have. Instead, it crouched like it was getting ready to charge or spring at him.
He turned until he was facing it directly, and then still slowly, smoothly, brought the spear up until it was facing the cat. You want some of this, you fucker, come and get it. It snarled. He could see more of it now, crouched in the grass, huge shoulders flexed and ready, tail lashing the air. And those eyes, those fierce yellow eyes.
It was only in the last fleeting fraction of second that he glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye, before another sabertooth smashed into his side and dragged him down. It weighed well over four hundred pounds, and was immensely strong. Its huge paws pinioned his shoulders. He had landed so that the spear was lying beneath him. Desperately he tried to turn his hips to kick it, but it brought one of its hind legs up and pinned him down.
It was in no hurry. It paused for a moment, breathing, before looking at him and then lowering its head. He had time to scream, once, before it drove its fangs into his throat, and sliced through his windpipe and carotid arteries. The last thing he saw was the cat purring as it licked the blood pouring from his neck.