The now extinct Smilodon is one of the most famous of the sabre-toothed cats, having inhabited North America up until 10,000 years ago.


Smilodon's Terrifying Teeth

Professor Alice Roberts asks how did Smilodon use it's terrifying teeth?

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Smilodon


Roaming the plains south of the glacier-bound North America between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago, Smilodons are one of the most famous of the sabre-toothed cats. They are one of several Ice Age-era mega fauna whose bones are found in large numbers at the famous La Brea Tar Pits in California.

At a similar size to modern tigers, the largest of the cats, they were specialised predators of large herbivores such as bison and horses, as well as the now extinct camels, ground sloths and mastodons. They utilised trees and bush to stalk their prey before launching a speedy ambush, using their bulk and power to bring down the animal.

It is possible that the steady extinction of large animals in North America lead to its own demise, due in part to the arrival of a new, intelligent hunter to the American plains: humans.

Smilodon (sabre-tooth cat) skull showing the long canine teeth

Smilodon (sabre-tooth cat) skull showing the long canine teeth

The Sabre Teeth

The nickname "sabre-toothed cat" refers to the long canine teeth that can grow up to an incredible 30cm long. Despite their huge size, Smilodon's teeth were actually quite fragile and could not have been used to attack fleeing prey. One bite into thick bone or an aggressively squirming animal could have snapped the slender teeth.

Today's big cats on the plains of Africa grip the windpipe of their prey or smother them with their mouths. In fact, it is rare that their much smaller canines break the skin. This technique would have been impossible for Smilodon's canine-filled mouth.

However, Smilodon was able to open their mouth twice as wide as that of the larger big cats while the temporal bone, where the jaw joins the skull, is much larger than that of lions or tigers allowing for large biting muscles.

With heavy front legs, strong dew claw on the side of the paw and a massive head and biting muscles, Smilodon would have been able to subdue its prey species before risking the delivery of its bite, ripping a chunk of flesh from the throat or hide leaving its prey to rapidly bleed to death without risking damage to its teeth during a struggle.