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THE SABER-TOOTHED TIGER (Smilodon fatalis)

 Saber-toothed cats are some of the best known and most popular of all Ice Age animals. They are among the most impressive carnivores ever to have lived. Two different types of saber-toothed cats lived in the Midwestern U.S. at the end of the last Ice Age. One type was the familiar saber-tooth, represented by the genus Smilodon. These cats had enlarged canines usually associated with the name saber-tooth. Their canines were up to about 18 centimeters (7 inches) long. Both types of saber-toothed cats went extinct approximately 11,000 years ago.

 The saber-toothed cat probably lived on grassy plains and in open woodland and killed prey larger than themselves, such as ancient horses and buffalo but may have also taken smaller animals like antelope and deer. They may also have eaten carrion. The enlarged upper canines are one of the most dramatic features of this group of cats. The way in which the animals used these canines has been debated since the 1880s when Smilodon was first described. One possible use is as a weapon for killing prey. If this is the case, the canines were probably used for a shearing bite to the throat or abdomen of large prey (see for example Akersten, 1985).

 Occasional finds of sabr-etooth-sized holes in Smilodon bones suggest that the social life of Smilodon was not always peaceful; the cats may have fought over food or mates, as lions do today. Such fights were probably accompanied by loud roaring -- from the structure of the hyoid bones in the throat of Smilodon, we know it could roar.

Although the saber-toothed cat has no close living relatives, paleontologists reconstruct how the saber-toothed cat looked by comparing its bones with those of large cats living today. Very powerful front legs and a short tail indicate that saber-toothed cats used stealth and ambush rather than speed to capture their prey.