Saber-Toothed Cat Had Weak Bite, Digital Model Says

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
October 1, 2007

Despite its fearsome fangs, the saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis may have been a relatively wimpy biter—at least compared to modern-day lions.

The prehistoric cat with the 6.5-inch (17-centimeter) chompers roamed the Americas as recently as 10,000 years ago, preying on bison, horse, and possibly even woolly mammoths (related photo: "Frozen Mammoth Unveiled" [March 24, 2005]).

Now computer modeling has revealed that the cat's jaws could apply only about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of pressure, said Colin McHenry, a doctoral student at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

That's just a third of the bite strength of a lion, which can exert up to 660 pounds (300 kilograms) of force with its jaws.

The find offers new clues to understanding the hunting style of the ancient predator.

Lions, for example, can bring down their prey by leaping on them and biting their necks.

"But that would put an enormous amount of stress on the [saber-tooth's] skull," McHenry said. "So we think it had to tackle its prey before biting."

Based on the Ice Age cat's body shape, this isn't actually surprising, he added.

"People think of [the saber-toothed cat] as a lion with big teeth. But if you'd actually seen it, you'd have thought it was a bear with big teeth. [It was] built for wrestling large prey to the ground."

McHenry and colleagues at the University of Newcastle and the University of New South Wales publish their findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Saber-Tooth Crash Test

McHenry's team used a method called finite element analysis to simulate the stresses that would have been placed on the saber-toothed cat's skull while biting its prey.

Continued on Next Page >>


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