Child Mammoths Have been Meals for These Saber-Tooth Cats
In a landscape that would one day become a suburb of San Antonio, paleontologists paint a picture that is as bloody as it is fascinating.
Mammoths were chased by big cats with crooked teeth sticking out of their jaws. The cats grabbed a juvenile mammoth, and blood stained the fur around their mouth and claws as it penetrated the grasses around them. After they had eaten their fill, they brought the carcass back to their cave. This was a meal that could later be shared again.
Earlier this month, researchers published an article in the journal Current Biology that provided evidence for this scenario. What it also shows is that the cats had a diet like no other big cat that is extinct or alive today.
When most people think of saber-tooth cats, they think of North America’s smilodon. But they roamed the same terrain as another feral but lesser-known cat, Homotherium serum, also known as the scimitar cat. While the authors compare Homotherium to a cheetah in some ways, this cat appears to have been built for long distance running rather than sprinting. Its teeth were sharp and coarse-toothed, and its fangs were shorter than Smilodon’s iconic fangs. These shorter sabers may have been better at slicing than stabbing.
“Everything we looked at basically told us that Smilodon and Homotherium are completely different cats,” said Larisa DeSantis, the newspaper’s lead author and paleontologist at Vanderbilt University. She adds that while more closely related than any cat species living today, “they were able to coexist in these ecosystems, probably because they had very different feeding niches.”
The Friesenhahn Cave outside of San Antonio has produced more homotherium fossils than any other place in the world. It is a Pleistocene treasury that houses a wide variety of fossil species, including large numbers of juvenile mammoth bones. The abundance of homotherium and mammoth suggests that they may be related to each other. But was it you?
To answer that question, Dr. DeSantis and her colleagues set the Homotherium Diet.
They started by doing a three-dimensional analysis of the surface of Homotherium teeth and compared them to similar predators during the Pleistocene, as well as those that hunt today. They found that homotherium ate soft and chewy food, but not bones. When they ate mammoths it meant they could eat the animals’ hard skins and soft flesh, but avoid the crunching of bone material.
The researchers also found chemical signatures that provided clear evidence that these cats were eating herbivores that grazed in open habitats. Homotherium’s penchant for herbivore grazing is unlike any other North American wildcat today or otherwise.
This analysis, combined with the discovery of numerous detached mammoth bones in a homotherium-populated cave, led the researchers to conclude that mammoths were on the menu and remains were dragged home after a successful hunt.
“I definitely think they would have hunted juvenile mammoths,” said Aaron Woodruff, a paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the research. “But I don’t think they would have done that often.” He laughed.
“As if I don’t think the crew would get together every weekend looking for mammoths.”
Mairin Balisi, a paleoecologist at the tar pits and at the La Brea Museum, who was also not involved in the research, praised the analysis in the paper, but added that “more evidence such as nitrogen isotopes from collagen, which could provide more, the insight into whether an animal is juvenile or not would be increased. “
It took a bit of luck that the fossils were even available for study.
The Friesenhahnhöhle on private property was discovered, examined, excavated, then lost and rediscovered in the early 20th century. Ernest Lundelius, co-author and retired geoscientist at the University of Texas at Austin, has been working in the cave since 1957.
After learning of the cave’s existence, the youngest owners rediscovered it and donated it to Concordia University Texas in the 1990s. This donation, with access for paleontologists and new scientific methods, made the ideas in this recent article possible.
“As paleontologists, we can only study fossils that are in public collections,” said Dr. DeSantis. “And we can only go back to fossils and expand excavations if those fossils exist and are not destroyed.”