for National Geographic News
Unlike most of their fellow felines, saber-toothed cats were social creatures, living and hunting in formidable packs, according to a new study.
Sabertooths were large and muscular, similar in size—but not closely related—to modern-day tigers.
An abundance of sabertooth fossils in tar pits in present-day Los Angeles, California, suggests that the cats were pack scavengers, scientists say. Tar pits occur when underground asphalt leaks to the surface, causing a large puddle or lake of the sticky substance.
The predators may have also gotten stuck responding to distress calls of prey trapped in the tar.
(Related: "Sabertooth Cousin Found in Venezuela Tar Pit -- A First" [August 18, 2008].)
"The ratios of animals that we got in the fossil record support the idea that these carnivores were social, and that it's part of an age-old process of scavenging and competing over kills," said lead author Chris Carbone, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London.
The research appeared recently in the journal Biology Letters.
Scientists know little about the behavior of the sabertooths, including their hunting methods.
But the animals are among the most common species preserved at the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in central Los Angeles, where asphalt has been seeping up from the ground for tens of thousands of years. The plants and animals trapped over the centuries now form a rich collection of fossils.
More carnivores than herbivores died in the deposits, Carbone added.
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