Diet of Californian Fossil Cats Unveiled

A new research published in the open access journal PLoS-ONE has revealed previously unknown differences in the food habits of saber-toothed cats and American lions that roamed California during the late Pleistocene 30,000 to 12,000 years ago, and suggested that though the case of their extinction is still unknown, a lack of food was probably not the main reason.

The saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis (Charles R. Knight)

The saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis) and American lion (Panthera atrox) were among the largest terrestrial carnivores that lived during their time, and went extinct along with other large animals approximately 12,000 years ago. Previous studies have suggested many reasons for their extinction, including a changing climate, human activity and competition from humans and other animals for food, which may have grown scarce as a result of these changes.

It is known that when prey is scarce, large carnivores may gnaw prey to the bone, wearing their teeth down in the process.

The current study, conducted by a team of scientists headed by Dr Larisa DeSantis of Vanderbilt University, has revealed that saber-toothed cats did not resort to this behavior just before extinction, suggesting that lack of prey was probably not the main reason they became extinct.

In contrast, American lions did not consume much bone even near extinction, and had tooth-wear patterns similar to cheetahs, who actively avoid bone in their prey.

“Tooth wear patterns suggest that these cats were not desperately consuming entire carcasses, as was expected, and instead seemed to be living the ‘good life’ during the late Pleistocene, at least up until the very end,” Dr DeSantis said.


Bibliographic information: DeSantis LRG et al. 2012. Implications of Diet for the Extinction of Saber-Toothed Cats and American Lions. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52453; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052453