Common Names: saber-tooth cat (or sabertooth cat), sabercat
Smilodon fatalis had a body mass ranging from 350 to 600 pounds, similar in weight to the modern Siberian tiger.
Fossils of Smilodon fatalis are not particularly common in Florida, but there have been many fossils found across the United States, including a prolific collection in Rancho la Brea in Los Angeles, California.
- Late middle to latest Pleistocene Epoch; late Irvingtonian and Rancholabrean land mammal ages
- About 700,000 to 11,000 years ago
Scientific Name and Classification
Smilodon fatalis Leidy, 1868
Source of Species Name: not stated in Leidy’s original description, but from the Latin word fatalis, meaning of fate or destiny. But presumably Leidy’s intent was based on the standard English usage of the word ‘fatal’, meaning deadly or causing death.
Classification: Mammalia, Eutheria, Laurasiatheria, Carnivora, Feliformia, Aeluroidea, Felidae, Machairodontinae, Smilodontini
Alternate Species Names: Machairodus floridanus, Smilodon californicus, Smilodon floridanus
Overall Geographic Range
Smilodon fatalis lived in southern and central North America, Central America, and western South America (Kurten and Werdelin, 1990). The type locality is in southeastern Texas (Leidy, 1868).
Florida Fossil Occurrences
Florida fossil sites with Smilodon fatalis:
- Alachua County—Arredondo 1; Haile 7A
- Brevard County—Melbourne
- Citrus County—Bone Cave; Sabertooth Cave (=Lecanto Cave)
- Columbia County—Ichetucknee River; Santa Fe River
- Dade County—Cutler Hammock
- De Soto County—Peace River 2
- Hardee County—Peace River 11
- Indian River County—Vero Canal Site
- Levy County—Waccasassa River 2; Waccasassa River 6
- Manatee County—Bradenton 51st Street
- Marion County—Reddick 1B; “Rock Crevice” of Leidy (1889b); Withlacoochee River
- Pinellas County—Millennium Park; Seminole Field
- Putnam County—St. Johns Lock
- Sarasota County—Venice area; Warm Mineral Springs
- Taylor County—Aucilla River 1A
The genus Smilodon contains three widely recognized species: Smilodon populator, Smilodon fatalis, and Smilodon gracilis (Kurten and Werdelin, 1990; Turner, 1996). Two species names widely used in the older scientific and semi-popular literature, Smilodon californicus and Smilodon floridanus, are almost always now regarded as junior synonyms of Smilodon fatalis. Berta (1985) proposed that Smilodon populator and Smilodon fatalis were actually a single species, with the former name having priority. This approach has been followed in a few other studies, but today most experts on extinct felids regard the two species as distinct. Smilodon populator in this scenario is limited to portions of South America east of the Andes.
Although Smilodon fatalis is known from late Irvingtonian (middle Pleistocene) sites in South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nebraska, fossil localities of this age in Florida have not recorded it (although only three such sites are known, so this absence might be an artifact of the sparse record from this time interval). Thus all known Florida records of the species are from the Rancholabrean land mammal age. Fossils of Smilodon fatalis are not particularly common in Florida. Most records are isolated teeth or bones, typically less than five specimens per locality, and most often just one. A partial skeleton of a subadult individual was found at Arredondo 1 in a limestone quarry southwest of Gainesville in the early 1950s (Fig. 2; Kurten, 1965). According to Kurt Auffenberg (pers. comm. to R. Hulbert), his father and former museum curator Walter Auffenberg told him that this skeleton originally included a skull, but that it was retained by the collector. Its whereabouts are unknown. The best skull of Smilodon fatalis from Florida in a museum collection is still the first specimen ever found, in 1888 at a fissure deposit in a limestone quarry near Ocala (Figs. 3-4; Leidy, 1889a, 1889b). According to Leidy (1889b), this skull originally had some teeth, but they were removed by the person who found it. This specimen is the holotype of Smilodon floridanus and is on public display at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia just where Joseph Leidy himself placed it. It has a nearly complete braincase and most of the right maxilla.
Fossils of Smilodon fatalis can easily be distinguished from those of Smilodon gracilis, the only other species in the genus known from Florida, by their much larger size. According to Christiansen and Harris (2005), Smilodon fatalis had a body mass ranging from 350 to 600 pounds (160 to 280 kg), similar in weights observed in the modern Siberian tiger. In contrast, Smilodon gracilis was only about the size of a modern jaguar, weighing between 120 and 220 pounds (55 to 100 kg). There are also morphologic differences. In the teeth, the upper canine of Smilodon fatalis is more curved and has better developed serrations. The lower third premolar of Smilodon fatalis is usually absent, or if present more vestigial than that of Smilodon gracilis. The inner cusp on the upper fourth premolar, the protocone, is very reduced or even absent in Smilodon fatalis. The only felid of similar (or even larger) size present in the late Pleistocene of Florida is the American lion, Panthera atrox. It too is a relatively rare species in Florida. Almost every bone in the skeleton of these two great cats can be distinguished, as detailed in the classic monograph of Merriam and Stock (1932).
In stark contrast to its rarity in the Florida fossil record is the massive number of well-preserved specimens of Smilodon fatalis at the Rancho la Brea in Los Angeles, California. Over 2,000 skulls alone have been found in the various tar pits there. Naturally it is this tremendous sample that has been most studied by paleontologists, who have used it to analyze almost every imaginable aspect of the paleobiology of this famous species. Among the most studied features are how it captured and killed its prey (e.g., Akersten, 1985, 2005; Anyonge, 1996; McHenry et al., 2007; Meachen-Samuels, 2012), diet and chewing mechanics (e.g., Van Valkenburgh et al., 1990; Biknevicius et al., 1996; Kohn et al., 2005; Wroe et al., 2005; Binder, and Van Valkenburgh, 2010; DeSantis et al., 2012), degree of sociality and sexual dimorphism (e.g., Van Valkenburgh and Sacco, 2002; Carbone et al., 2009; Kiffner, 2009; Van Valkenburgh et al., 2009; Meachen-Samuels and Binder, 2010; Christiansen and Harris, 2012), and growth rates and patterns (e.g., Feranec, 2004; Meachen-Samuels and Binder, 2010; Christiansen, 2012).
- Original Author(s): Richard C. Hulbert Jr.
- Original Completion Date: April 23, 2013
- Editor(s) Name(s): Richard C. Hulbert Jr. and Natali Valdes
- Last Updated On: December 16, 2020
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Akersten, W. 2005. The role of incisors and forelimbs in the shear bite and feeding of Smilodon. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 25(3, Supplement):31A.
Anyonge, W. 1996. Microwear on canines and killing behavior in large carnivores: saber function in Smilodon fatalis. Journal of Mammalogy 77:1059-1067.
Berta, A. 1985. The status of Smilodon in North and South America. Contributions in Science No. 370, 15 p. (Download PDF)
Biknevicius, A. R., B. Van Valkenburgh, and J. Walker. 1996. Incisor size and shape: implications for feeding behaviors in saber-toothed ‘cats’. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 16(3):510-521. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4523739
Binder, W., and B. Van Valkenburgh. 2010. A comparison of tooth wear and breakage in Rancho La Brea sabertooth cats and dire wolves across time. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(1):255-261.
Carbone, C., T. Maddox, P. J. Funston, M. G. L. Mills, G. F. Grether and B. Van Valkenburgh. 2009. Parallels between playbacks and Pleistocene tar seeps suggest sociality in an extinct sabretooth cat, Smilodon. Biology Letters 5:81-85.
Christiansen, P. 2012. The making of a monster: postnatal ontogenetic changes in craniomandibular shape in the great sabercat Smilodon. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29699.
Christiansen, P., and J. M. Harris. 2005. Body size of Smilodon (Mammalia: Felidae). Journal of Morphology 266:369-384.
Christiansen, P., and J. M. Harris. 2012. Variation in craniomandibular morphology and sexual dimorphism in pantherines and the sabercat Smilodon fatalis. PLoS ONE 7(10):e48352.
DeSantis, L .R. G., B. W.Schubert, J. R. Scott, and P. S. Ungar. 2012. Implications of diet for the extinction of saber-toothed cats and American lions. PLoS ONE 7(12):e52453.
Feranec, R. S. 2004. Isotopic evidence of saber-tooth development, growth rate, and diet from the adult canine of Smilodon fatalis from Rancho la Brea. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 206(3-4):303-310.
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Kiffner, C. 2009. Coincidence or evidence: was the sabretooth cat Smilodon social? Biology Letters 5:561-562.
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Kurtén, B. 1965. The Pleistocene Felidae of Florida. Bulletin of the Florida State Museum 9(6):215-273.
Kurtén, B., and L. Werdelin. 1990. Relationships between North and South American Smilodon. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 10(2):158-169.
Leidy, J. 1868. Notice of some vertebrate remains from Harden Co., Texas. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 20:174-176.
Leidy, J. 1889a. The sabre-tooth tiger of Florida. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 41:29-31.
Leidy, J. 1889b. Descriptions of mammalian remains from a rock crevice in Florida. Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia 2:13-17.
McHenry, C. R., S. Wroe, P. D. Clausen, K. Moreno, and E. Cunningham. 2007. Supermodeled sabercat, predatory behavior in Smilodon fatalis revealed by high-resolution 3D computer simulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104:16010-16015.
Meachen-Samuels, J. A. 2012. Morphological convergence of the prey-killing arsenal of sabertooth predators. Paleobiology 38(1):1-14.
Meachen-Samuels, J. A., and W. Binder. 2010. Sexual dimorphism and ontogenetic growth in the American lion and sabertoothed cat from Rancho La Brea. Journal of Zoology 280:271?279.
Meachen-Samuels, J. A., and B. Van Valkenburgh. 2010. Radiographs reveal exceptional forelimb strength in the sabertooth cat, Smilodon fatalis. PLoS ONE 5(7):e11412.
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Turner, A. 1996. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: an Illustrated Guide to their Evolution and Natural History. Columbia University Press, New York, 234 p.
Van Valkenburgh, B., and T. Sacco. 2002. Sexual dimorphism, social behavior, and intrasexual competition in large Pleistocene carnivorans. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22(1):164-169.
Van Valkenburgh, B., T. Maddox, P. J. Funston, M. G. L. Mills, G. F. Grether and C. Carbone. 2009. Sociality in Rancho La Brea Smilodon: arguments favour ‘evidence’ over ‘coincidence’. Biology Letters 5:563-564.
Van Valkenburgh, B., M. F. Teaford, and A. Walker, A. 1990. Molar microwear and diet in large carnivores: inferences concerning diet in the sabretooth cat, Smilodon fatalis. Journal of Zoology 222:319?340.
Wroe, S., C. McHenry, and J. Thomason. 2005. Bite club: comparative bite force in big biting mammals and the prediction of predatory behaviour in fossil taxa. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272:619-625. (Download PDF)
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number CSBR 1203222, Jonathan Bloch, Principal Investigator. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.