ORIGINALLY PEOPLE thought that the long canines of saber-toothed cats were intended to pierce the thick skin of mammoths and were used to inflict gaping wounds. However, recent modeling suggests that repeated biting of struggling prey would result in breaking the saber-cats’ teeth, and that the fangs were used in a single neck bite on pinned prey, severing major blood vessels and quickly resulting in death.1 As the other two major groups of saber-tooth carnivores, Nimravidae and Barbourofelidae, have been extinct for millions of years, we will probably have to determine their diet based upon deduction. Fortunately the saber-toothed felids have been extinct for only tens of thousands of years, which is practically yesterday! We have some evidence of their diet in a cave that served as den for Homotherium and in the bones of Smilodon preserved in the La Brea tar pits.

Homotherium serum was about the size of a lion and became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Friesenhahn cave in Texas has been identified as a Homotherium den, in use between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.2 A variety of animal bones are preserved there, but the two most common species’ remains are Homotherium serum (including three articulated skeletons) and Mammuthus columbi. The mammoth remains were from young animals of about two years old, making them somewhat larger than a Cape buffalo. Most are skull remains, but among the mammoth bones long bones such as the femur and humerus are over-represented. The authors suggest that Homotherium was able to disarticulate prey and drag meaty limbs back to its den. In the past it has been thought that Homotherium was incapable of efficiently defleshing bones without fracturing its teeth, but the mammoth bones show score marks from the saber-cat’s teeth. However, long bones were not broken as they would have been if eaten by a bone-crushing animal such as the hyena or dire wolf, or even smaller canids like the coyote. The chief damage was done to the ends of the bones, where Homotherium was able to chew away the porous epiphyseal plates. The prevalence of juvenile mammoths suggests that mammoths may not have similar behavior to elephants, which live in herds and protect young by placing them inside the group when predators are around. Alternatively, Homotherium may have hunted in groups, isolating juvenile mammoths by teamwork. Homotherium‘s efficiency in defleshing bones and hauling away portions of a prey carcass suggest earlier ideas that humans could obtain large amounts of meat from scavenging saber-tooth kills are incorrect.

Smilodon fatalis was significantly larger than the lion, but may have typically taken smaller prey than Homotherium serum. The La Brea tar pits preserve bones 10,000 to 40,000 years old. The collagen in these bones can be analyzed for the non-radioactive isotope content, which varies according to diet.3 Herbivores represented included camels (Camelops hesternus), bison (Bison antiquus), horses (Equus occidentalis), dwarf pronghorns (Capromeryx minor), ground sloths (Paramylodon harlani), mammoths (Mammuthus columbi), and mastodons (Mammot americanum). The mammoth bones were poorly preserved and did not contain testable collagen, possibly coming from cool, wet periods. Mastodons were also rare and had a unique diet enriched in legumes, suggesting they might not be resident in the area. Isotope signatures show Smilodon fatalis, the dire wolf (Canis dirus), and the American lion (Panthera leo atrox) competed for similar prey, but that Smilodon preferred ruminants. Considering the dwarf pronghorn weighed only as much as a small dog, Smilodon‘s diet was probably chiefly composed of the larger ruminants, bison and camels, although also including other species like the horse and ground sloth.

Although the popular depiction of saber-tooth cats has them preying upon adult mammoths, their diets really were composed of more size-appropriate prey. Smilodon fatalis had a similar diet to the contemporary American lion, while Homotherium serum did prey upon mammoths, but took juveniles.

  1. Therrien, F. “Feeding behavior and bite force of sabretoothed predators.” Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 2005, 145, 393-426. DOI:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2005.00194.x
  2. Marean, C. W.; Ehrhardt, C. L. “Paleoanthropological and paleoecological implications of the taphonomy of a sabertooth’s den.” Journal of Human Evolution 1995, 29, 515-547. DOI:10.1006/jhev.1995.1074
  3. Coltrain, J. B.; Harris, J. M.; Cerling, T. E.; Ehleringer, J. R.; Dearing, M.-D.; Ward, J.; Allen, J. “Rancho La Brea stable isotope biogeochemistry and its implications for the paleoecology of late Pleistocene, coastal southern California.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 2004, 205, 199-219. DOI:10.1016/j.palaeo.2003.12.008