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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/July 1898/Saber-Toothed Cats


OF the family of cats, the Felidæ of naturalists, there are now in existence upon the earth about fifty distinct species, nearly all of which are so closely allied to each other that they have received the common designation of Felis. Our domestic cat, whose wild origin is lost in history, is a good representative of the family and one of its smallest members. The Asiatic tiger, the largest and most powerful of all, rarely reaches a length of eleven feet, while the African lion falls not far behind in size and prowess.

The habits of all these fifty species are much alike. With the exception of a fish-eating Indian species, they all obtain their food, which consists of the flesh of other animals, by stealth. For this reason they are all, with the exception of the African lion, inhabitants of forests and jungles, rarely frequenting the open plains, where concealment is less easy. No other living animals are so perfectly adapted for carnivorous habits as are they: their teeth are sharp and cutting; their claws long and pointed, and ensheathed when at rest; their body is lithe and flexible. Their intelligence, while perhaps not equal to that possessed by the other great carnivorous family, the dogs, is by no means of an inferior order.

These fifty living species, however, comprise but a small proportion of all those that have lived in the past. More than that number of extinct cats are already known to scientific men, and many others must have lived of which we yet have no knowledge, and perhaps never may. Those fossil cats have been discovered in nearly all of the great regions of the world where their descendants now live. In Australia and Madagascar they have apparently never lived, because these regions were separated from the mainlands long before cats came into existence, and they have never found an opportunity to reach them since. The oldest cats are known from Europe and North America, making their appearance in geological history, so far as we now know, at nearly the same time. In South America they appeared much later.

In no continent have the extinct cats been found in greater variety and abundance than in the United States, and it is not improbable that here is the real birthplace of the family. More than twenty-five species have already been discovered in the United States, and doubtless not a few others will yet be added to the list. The oldest are from the Bad Lands of South Dakota and Wyoming, while others, only a little more recent, are from Oregon. Remains of those which lived much later have been discovered in Florida, the cave deposits of the Eastern States, from the Indian Territory, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and elsewhere. It is not at all improbable that within recent geological history more than one hundred species of cats have lived within the boundaries of the United States, some of them not becoming extinct until after the advent of man himself. The largest species yet discovered is from the famous bone beds of Phillips County, Kansas, associated with large dogs, rhinoceroses, horses, camels, etc., in the Loup Fork Tertiary. This species, though yet known from very scanty material, has been rightly named Felis maxima by Scott, and it must have measured thirteen or fourteen feet in length.

PSM V53 D365 Saber toothed cat hoplophoneus occidentalis.jpg
Saber-toothed Cat (Hoplophoneus occidentalis, Leidy)

While collectively all these extinct species are known as cats, only a few are so nearly related to the living species as to be classed in the same genus Felis; and these few are the most recent of all. It will be remembered that at present only four or five species of cats are inhabitants of North America—the lynx or wild cat, ocelot, panther or mountain lion, and cougar; the ocelot and cougar found only within the southern limits. Cats are almost always inhabitants of tropical or warm, temperate regions.

The most remarkable of all the extinct feline animals are those known to naturalists as the saber-toothed cats or tigers, a group comprising the greater part of all the fossil forms. They date back to the earliest times of which we know anything about the family in North America and reach down to the time of man himself. A large and powerful species described from the Indian Territory by Cope lived contemporaneously with the hairy mammoth, as evidenced by the commingling of their skeletons. There can be little or no question but that the hairy mammoth was contemporaneous with man in North America as well as in Europe. Their geological range is from the close of the Eocene to the latter part of the Pleistocene.

The accompanying illustration will give a fairly good idea of what some of these saber-toothed cats were like. Of course, one can not say that the animals were colored as the artist has represented them in his drawing. Perhaps there is more reason to believe that their markings, if they had any, were spots rather than bars, since spots are more primitive than bars. The figures were made from a skeleton of Hoplophoneus occidentalis, Leidy, recently constructed by Mr. E. S. Piggs in the University of Kansas Museum, and the artist had most perfectly mounted models of various recent cats to aid him in the restoration.

The chief peculiarities of the animal as seen in the picture are the extraordinarily elongated canine teeth. It will also be noticed that the tail is of unusual length and that the legs are short. The animal measured about seven feet in length aside from the tail. The lower jaws have a downward projection in front, as the picture shows, due to a flange-like widening of the jawbones, which doubtless served as a protection to the teeth, preventing their injury or loss. In some of the larger forms, from South America, this flange was not present, while the canine teeth were even more elongated than is the case with this species, attaining a length of over six inches and protruding far below the jaws when closed. Indeed, so far did they protrude that it was impossible for the mouth to be opened wide enough to permit anything to pass them. Skulls of these South American saber-tooths have been found, it is said, and one can readily believe the statement, in which the points of these teeth had become fastened in the lower jaws during life, preventing closure of the mouth, and in consequence casing starvation! It is difficult to quite understand just how these animals killed their prey. Doubtless some used their teeth as daggers, with a downward thrust, the mouth being closed. For this use the teeth were admirably adapted, being long, curved, and flattened, with each thin edge finely serrated.

In some of the most highly specialized of these animals the molar teeth in the back part of the jaws had been reduced in number, so that only one remained above and below on each side.

It is a pretty well established fact in natural history that such peculiar characters when once acquired are never lost. If this be true, it is quite certain that the saber-toothed eats have left no descendants behind them. Throughout North and South America they became extinct almost within historical times, and have left nothing behind them save their bones in the rocks.