Sabertooth

Sabertooth

Sabertooth

Sabertooth

Synopsis

With their spectacularly enlarged canines, sabertooth cats are among the most popular of prehistoric animals, yet it is surprising how little information about them is available for the curious layperson. What's more, there were other sabertooths that were not cats, animals with exotic names like nimravids, barbourofelids, and thylacosmilids. Some were no taller than a domestic cat, others were larger than a lion, and some were as weird as their names suggest. Sabertooths continue to pose questions even for specialists. What did they look like? How did they use their spectacular canine teeth? And why did they finally go extinct? In this visual and intellectual treat of a book, Mauricio Antón tells their story in words and pictures, all scrupulously based on the latest scientific research. The book is a glorious wedding of science and art that celebrates the remarkable diversity of the life of the not-so-distant past.

Excerpt

TODAY SABERTOOTHS ARE A FAMILIAR KIND OF EXTINCT CREATURES for scientists and for many laypersons, but in the early days of paleontology, not even scientists knew that such a thing as a sabertoothed predator had ever existed. Consequently, when early paleontologists first tried to make sense of fragmentary fossils of sabertooths, they attributed the remains to other, already known groups of animals. After all, those early discoveries were not of complete skeletons or even skulls, which would have revealed right away that the bizarre canines of sabertooth cats fit into an otherwise catlike skull and skeleton. Instead, the partial finds were like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with no complete picture to refer to.

One of the first people faced with the task of interpreting sabertooth fossils was the nineteenth-century Danish naturalist P. Lund. In the 1830s, Lund devoted a lot of time and effort to exploring the caves of Lagoa Santa, in the Brazilian region of Minas Gerais. He had left Denmark in 1833 (at the age of thirty-two) to pursue botanical research in Brazil, but in 1834 he met his compatriot P. Claussen, a fossil collector who had worked in Argentina before coming to Brazil. Lund was immediately fascinated by fossils and paleontology, so he abandoned botany and moved to Lagoa Santa, then a village with fewer than five hundred inhabitants that was surrounded by numerous calcareous caverns, some of them rich in fossils. Many of the caves were actively exploited for saltpeter, with lots of fossils being destroyed in the process, so Lund set out to salvage as much material as possible (Paula Couto 1955; Cartelle 1994). With admirable dedication, he and his local assistants explored cave after cave, collecting over 12,000 fossils between 1834 and 1846. It was extremely hard work, but Lund’s fascination for the extinct fauna of Brazil led him through all the difficulties he encountered, and whenever he found a rich fossil site, his imagination was set aflame. One of his peak achievements was to find the first remains of perhaps the most spectacular sabertooth cat, the Pleistocene felid Smilodon populator. Lund’s first finds were just a few isolated pieces, and he thought they belonged to a hyena, naming the creature Hyaena neogaea in 1839. But in 1842, with the addition of a little more material, including a few more teeth and some foot bones, Lund – an adept follower of G. Cuvier, the father of comparative anatomy – soon realized that the predator actually belonged to the cat family.

Lund was convinced that the numerous bones of large mammals that he found in the caves had been dragged there by big predators, which retreated to their dark dens to feed at leisure. The identification of Smilodon as the dominant predator of its time rounded out the scenario in his mind:

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