Saber-toothed cat: these toothy cats were the terrors of the Ice Age.
Two million years ago, the Earth began to get very cold. The Ice Age had begun. Then, starting about 35,000 years ago, lots of huge mammals came into being--creatures such as giant sloths, mammoths, and mastodons. One of their fiercest predators was the saber-toothed cat.
Many species (kinds) of cats with long, saber-like teeth lived during the Ice Age. (A saber is a heavy sword with a slightly curved blade.) These animals could be found everywhere except Australia and Antarctica.
Scientists used to call these cats "saber-toothed tigers." But the cats were only distant cousins of modern tigers. In fact, they're not like any big cat living today.
BUILT LIKE A TRUCK
Saber-toothed cats weren't as tall or as long as an African lion. But they weighed just as much! Because of their hefty size, these cats couldn't run fast over a long distance. But no problem--their weight was great for overpowering big, slow prey such as giant sloths and even baby mastodons and mammoths!
The cats' back legs were built for springing. So scientists think the cats hid and waited for prey to come by--and then pounced.
Lions and many other cats attack prey by biting the back of the prey's neck. But the saber-toothed cats probably grabbed their prey with their powerful forelegs and paws. Then they pushed or pulled it over and chomped down on its throat or belly (see drawing at right).
DAGGERS AND CHOMPERS
Some scientists think the cats'
6-inch (15-cm) sabers were as dull as butter knives at their tips. But the scientists also think the cats used them to puncture their prey's thick hides. How? First, a cat's jaws opened super wide. Then strong muscles in the animal's head, neck, and shoulders rammed the sabers down into the prey.
Scientists aren't sure if the cats killed by stabbing over and over again, or by stabbing and then tearing chunks of flesh from their prey. The cats' small front teeth might have punched a row of holes in the flesh. That would have made the flesh easier to tear--like pulling sheets of paper from a spiral-bound notebook.
LIVED LIKE A LION
Fossils show that saber-toothed cats often survived even after they had been badly wounded. How did they get enough to eat when they were too hurt to hunt? Like lions, the cats probably lived in groups--and ate leftovers from prey that the other cats had killed.
BYE-BYE, BIG CAT
At the end of the Ice Age--about 10,000 years ago--the climate slowly got warmer. Different kinds of plants began to grow, turning forests to plains. Some scientists think the big cats' prey could not live as well there and finally died out. Other scientists think people killed off the cats' prey. Either way, the cats were soon gone too.
These magnificent animals have been extinct for a long time. But scientists are still finding out lots of lively things about them!
This fossil skull shows how wide a saber-toothed cat's jaws could open. By opening wide, the cat could stab with its long teeth.