Were Saber-Toothed Cat Fangs Strong Enough to Puncture Bone?

Some experts think not, but a new study suggests that holes in two saber-toothed cat skulls were caused by in-fighting

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Courtesy of Nicolas R. Chimento

Saber-toothed cats are well-known for their long, blade-like fangs, but just what those teeth were used for remains a matter of debate among paleontologists. Some experts contend that saber-toothed fangs, though fearsome, were in fact too fragile to grab hold of prey and crunch through bone, and were instead used to rip through softer parts of the body, like the belly or the throat. But as John Pickrell of Science News reports, a new study has found that the teeth may have actually been quite strong—strong enough to puncture the skull of another cat.

The report, published in the journal Comptes Rendus Palevol, looked at two fossilized skulls of Smilodon populator, a saber-toothed cat species that once roamed South America. Both specimens were found in Argentina, and both have similar openings at the top of the nasal area, between the eyes. One of the wounds appears to have been inflicted at the time of death, but the other shows signs of advanced healing, suggesting that the cat lived for quite a while after sustaining the injury.

When examining the skulls, the study authors quickly ruled out natural decay and disease as possible causes of the anomalies. “[B]ecause of the strong similarities in size and shape,” the researchers write, “the only agent that may stand as the possible producer of these injuries is another large animal with the capability to injure saber-toothed skulls.”

But what large animal might have done the deed? Both holes were single and oval-shaped, making it unlikely that they were inflicted by a swift kick from a horse or other hoofed mammal. Bear or canid fangs would have likewise left a different kind of mark on the skulls, according to the study authors. And the claws of giant sloths, the researchers add, “should have resulted in very different injuries from those reported here.”

That left another Smilodon as a promising suspect in both cases. In fact, when the researchers tested the theory by sticking the upper canine of a Smilodon specimen into the skull wounds, “both perfectly match[ed] in size and shape,” they write.

The new findings offer an intriguing counterpoint to previous theories about the strength and purpose of saber-toothed cat fangs. As early as the 1940s, scientists were positing that the animals had a weak bite, and that their long teeth were instead used for display among members of the species. More recently, computer reconstructions of the species Smilodon fatalis found that the force of its bite was only one-third as strong as a lion’s. The authors of that study concluded that the cat used its strength to bring prey down, only biting the neck once its unfortunate victims were restrained and grounded.

But the researchers behind the new study think it is possible that Smilodon fangs were strong enough to inflict the type of bone-piercing injuries seen in the two fossil specimens, which in turn has implications for our understanding of the cats’ social behavior. Members of the Smilodon populator species, in other words, fought one another; most often, according to the study authors, it would have been males duelling over access to territory or mates.

In fact, injuries similar to the ones seen in the Smilodon skulls have been documented in extant cat species, like ocelots, cougars and jaguars. “These injuries are the result of agonistic interactions between males and occasionally females,” the researchers write, “and frequently result in the death of one of the individuals.”

The study authors acknowledge that they can’t completely rule out other sources of injury. But the recent investigation suggests that the saber-toothed cat’s imposing fangs may have been every bit as fierce as they looked.

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