We drew these “saber-toothed cats” wrong

Previous renderings have shown saber-toothed felids with exposed upper canines. A recent study that combines fossils and extant specimens, however, reveals a different appearance of life, at least for one of the most common saber-toothed cat species in Earth’s ancient history.

Homotherium latidens was the most powerful Old World Pleistocene saber-toothed cat. According to the fossil record, the species first appeared around four million yearsevolving across Eurasia, before going extinct about 10,000 years ago.

This animal, which measured approximately 1.8 meters long for 1.1 meters high, sported broad saber-shaped and serrated canines, powerful front limbs, a receding back, and an enlarged optic bulb. In short, these are all key elements allowing him to hunt the largest animals of the Pleistocene.

That being said, a study published last month in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews suggests that many artistic reconstructions ofHomotherium latidens are wrong.

New data on the table

In an article published in 2009, Mauricio Antón, artist paleontologist and expert in saber-toothed cats, concluded that the two distinctive large canines of this large predator would have been visible even at rest. In other words, at the time, Homotherium was thought to fit the stereotypical profile of the saber-toothed cat. More recently, however, Mr. Antón has begun to wonder if he and other paleontological researchers were ultimately mistaken about the dentition of this feline.

For a long time, almost everything we know about saber-toothed cats indeed came from fossils and dissections of modern big cats. ” Only, when you dissect this type of animal, like a lion or a tiger, the lips are in a special positionbecause the muscles that control the lips are relaxeds”, explains the paleoartist.

Then, in 2016, while watching a self-made film of a male lion roaming the Okavango Delta, the researcher noticed something he had never seen before. The animal’s lower lip twitched as the mouth closed, wrapping around the tip of the canine even before complete closure.

A skull ofHomotherium latidens compared to that of a modern lion. Credits: Mauricio Anton

Canines stored inside

To understand the implications of his observation, Mr. Antón and a team of scientists eventually revised their findings with fresh eyes. They also did a 3D CT scan of a fossil ofHomotherium latidens full old three million years excavated a few years ago at Perrier, France.

With this new data in hand, the researchers were then able to deduce the life appearance of this extinct felid with much more accuracy than before. Their studies confirmed that there was simply no room for the lower lip and soft tissue to fit between the upper Homotherium canine and the gum. On the other hand, there was room for the canines to be hidden against the closed part of the lower mandible.

Whether they were hidden or not at rest, the “saber teeth” of these large predators were able to cut the arteries of the neck with formidable precision in the event of an attack. The prey then lost blood and fainted within seconds.

Note that if the upper canines of Homotherium measured between seven and eight centimeters longthose of the largest saber-toothed cat known, Smilodon fatalis, measured perhaps six inches. These new discoveries therefore do not apply to this ancient giant: no jaw could accommodate such fangs.

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