Sabre-toothed cats genetically suited to endurance hunting

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have totally upended the concept of the cat as a predatory, ambush stalker as is typical of all modern cats and decided that the sabre-toothed cats of Canada were endurance hunters like modern day African wild dogs. I find it very surprising but certainly interesting. They found certain genetic markers which strongly hinted that these ancient creatures are not as closely related to modern day tigers and lions as perhaps was once thought. They believe they hunted deer, antelope, buffalo, bison, camels and ancient horses. The lineage for this species of ancient cat split which is why they are more distant genetically from modern day big cats than apes are to humans.

Sabre-toothed cats endurance hunting in packs in ancient times. Illustration by University of Copenhagen
Sabre-toothed cats endurance hunting in packs in ancient times. Illustration by University of Copenhagen.
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The scientists decided that sabre-toothed cats had genetic adaptations which created cardiovascular and respiratory systems combined with strong bones that hinted strongly that they hunted by wearing down prey during daylight hours.

These were very large cats, larger than today’s largest tiger. They believe that they could have weighed up to a ton which makes it all the more surprising that they were endurance hunters. If you’ve got to move a ton in weight over long distances you have to be incredibly strong with enormous stamina to do that. I would doubt that their research is correct. All modern endurance runners are the opposite to the kind of animal they describe. The Mongolian mule is the world’s best endurance runner as it is the dog. They are very economical movers. Cats have large strides due to a flexible body and floating clavicle.

AnimalSpeed mphDistance (yds)
Human (male) – 2008 Usain Bolt30 (max)220
Human (male) – 2007 Haile Gebrselassie12.6 (average)46,147 (26.22 miles)
Horse43 (average)440
Cheetah70 – 75 (max)440 (max 600)
Mongolian Wild Ass30 (average)28,000 (16 miles)
Domestic cat30400 estimate
Sabre-tooth tiger
Saber Tooth Tiger – photograph and artwork are © copyright
 Ian Coleman published here with his permission.
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The Wildlife Art of Ian Coleman

They analysed a scimitar-toothed cat (Homotherium latidens) which they dug up from the Canadian permafrost and dated it to at least 47,500 years ago. They produced a full genome map of the animal. They also believe that the sabre-toothed cat of that era and place was quite social. Therefore they hunted in packs a bit like today’s wild dogs and lion prides.

They regard the animal as a highly skilled hunter displaying “complex social behaviours”. They had genetic adaptations for strong bones and cardiovascular and respiratory systems-meaning which meant that they were well suited for endurance running. Based on this, they think they hunted in a pack until their prey reached exhaustion with an endurance-based hunting-style during the daylight hours.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology. Sabre-toothed cats became extinct about 10,000 years ago. It’s believed that they lived in North and South America. Their canine teeth grew to about 18 cm in length. Their impressively long canine teeth did not grow to full length until they were about three years of age.

Some more on the Sabre-tooth cat (formerly described as a tiger)

Sabre-tooth cats pierced skull of rivals with their canine teeth

It is believed that sabre-toothed cats pierced the skull of their rivals with their canine teeth. Photo: Dr. Nicolas R. Chimento.

About a year ago I wrote about rival sabre-toothed cats fighting and how they were able to pierce the skull of their rival with one of their enormous canine teeth.

1 thought on “Sabre-toothed cats genetically suited to endurance hunting”

  1. As a child in the Los Angeles area of California in the early 1960’s we often went on field trips (outings supervised by teachers. I don’t know if the term “field trip” is an Americanism) to the La Brea tarpits and its attached museum which exhibited the retrieved skeletons of animals which had blundered into the tarpits in the last 40,000 years. The animals mistook it for an ordinary pond and were getting a drink when they got stuck. There were also many sabertooth tiger skeletons exhibited. They saw large animals stuck there and jumped on them, but they soon got stuck themselves. This seems to me to be analogous to the way modern big cats hunt, it didn’t seem that they ran these large animals down. But they could’ve just been taking advantage of a seemingly fortuitous, to them, opportunity and this way not the way these cats normally hunted.


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