What kind of sounds did the sabretooth cats make?

People are very familiar with the distinctive and iconic appearance of the sabretooth tiger and other species of sabertooths, which became extinct about 10,000 years ago. They were slightly smaller than today’s biggest lions and tigers and the question being discussed here is whether they roared like a lion.

Sabre-tooth tiger
Sabre tooth tiger – copyright protected.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

A study from North Carolina State University examined information available on whether the sabertooth tiger made a mighty roar or a throaty purr as reported on Science Daily.

You can categorise cats into two groups those that roar and those that purr; they can’t do both because of the configuration of the voice box. The big cats can roar and the medium-sized and small cats such as the lynxes can purr but they can’t roar.

The research tells us that the sabertooths split off the cat family tree before the evolution of modern cat species. A lead author of the research, Adam Hartstone-Rose, a professor of biological sciences at NC State tells us that lions are more closely related to domestic cats than to sabertooth tigers.

The debate on whether sabertooths roared or purred is reliant upon analysing the anatomy of the voice box and “a handful of tiny bones located in the throat.”

The “size, shape and number of those bones differ between modern roaring and purring cats,” according to Adam Hartstone-Rose.

Although the sound a cat makes is driven by the soft tissues of the throat. I recently wrote an article about how domestic cats purr based upon recent research which may interest you in which you can read by clicking on this link if you wish.

The soft tissue of the larynx enables cats to make their particular sounds but it is the bones which hold the tissues in place. They are called the hyoid bones and as mentioned they are different for those cats that purr compared to those that roar.

The point here is that even the experts can’t decide on the kind of sounds that the sabertooth made because they don’t have access to the soft tissues. All they can look at is the hyoid bones. Because sabertooths had seven hyoid bone it could be argued that they roared but they don’t have enough evidence to firmely decide on that.

Although on a common-sense basis, giving my viewpoint, it would seem likely that they did roar but didn’t purr. Note: the two sounds are not really comparable as the roar is for long-distance communication while the purr is for close communication.

The researchers decided that the hyoid bones of the sabertooths “are substantially larger than those of any other living relatives, so potentially they had even deeper vocalisations than the largest tigers and lions”.

It’s possible that they made entirely unique sounds with which we are unfamiliar today although, personally, it is likely that they made sound similar to today’s lions and tigers. However, the research is inconclusive. Hartstone-Rose said:

“If vocalization is about the number of bones in the hyoid structure, then sabertooths roared. If it’s about shape, they might have purred. Due to the fact that the sabertooths have things in common with both groups, there could even be a completely different vocalization.”

Cats evolved from a fierce sabre-toothed predator that prowled North America 42 million years ago, according to new research
Cats evolved from a fierce sabre-toothed predator that prowled North America 42 million years ago, according to new research. San Diego Natural History Museum SWNS.

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