Finite element analysis is a modeling technique developed by engineers for evaluating stresses on mechanical objects such as airplanes.
"You can think of it as a way of digital crash testing," McHenry said.
The test showed just how much pressure the saber-tooth's jaws could create before breaking the skull.
The computer model also helped reveal what the cat might have done once it had its prey down on the ground.
Paleontologists have long wondered whether the saber-toothed cat used its signature teeth to attack an animal's belly or neck.
One argument was that the cats used their fangs to eviscerate their prey, tearing into an animal's soft underside.
But attempting to hold a still-living buffalo down while biting its belly would allow the prey to thrash around enough to put dangerous pressure on the saber-tooth's jaw.
Cowboys, however, have long known that they can hold animals like buffalo down by their heads with relative ease.
And this, McHenry said, was probably what the saber-tooth did—using its long fangs to bite its prey's neck.
Modern lions actually hold prey down in a similar way. But once its prey is secure, the lion kills it with strong jaws designed to crush and suffocate.
With its weaker jaws, the saber-toothed cat couldn't suffocate its prey. Instead its long teeth would have pierced the animal's windpipe and carotid artery—killing it fairly quickly.
This might have actually been an advantage for the saber-tooth, since it can take a lion up to ten minutes to kill a buffalo by strangulation.
"That's a lot of time," McHenry said, noting that the saber-tooth had to compete with other big Ice Age predators hoping to steal its kill.
"The advantage of a quick kill seems to be quite significant."
Other scientists agree that computer modeling provides a good way of testing hypotheses about the behavior of extinct animals.
"It's important," said Mark Goodwin, a vertebrate paleontologist and assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
Similar studies have been done with dinosaurs, he noted, such as one study that examined the cranial strength—and thus the feeding habits—of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
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