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I’m sure the first thing you think about when you hear “saber-toothed”, is the saber-toothed tiger. The funny thing is, not all saber-toothed creatures are in the cat family (Felidae).

When we refer to an animal as saber-toothed, we’re really just talking about this one common feature: large, protruding teeth. A number of species, both extinct and still existing, hold this feature.

But today, we’re here to discuss the 3 most recently extinct species of saber-toothed cats: Smilodon. These members of the Felidae family are so interesting because their grossly enlarged canines make them a prime example of convergent evolution.

What exactly does that mean? Convergent evolution is when unrelated animals display similar features due to an evolutionary response to the same problem. This is like comparing birds to bats.

Question: What is the saber-toothed cat’s closest living relative?

A. Tiger
B. Lion
C. Bobcat
D. Clouded leopard

Size

Just how long were these massive canines? Take a look at the following image and see if you can guess… 4, 8,12, 20 inches perhaps?

Close up photograph of a saber toothed cat's skull

Good, eye! You guessed 8 inches, right? That’s the average length of these fine chompers.

So, we know they had some big teeth, but what did they use them for? The answer is simple — saber-toothed cats were meat-eaters and their prey usually consisted of giant creatures like ground sloths, deer, mammoths, and mastodons. On top of this, they had extremely flexible jaw mobility, allowing them to open to a complete 90-degree angle. Say ahhhh!

Now let’s get into body size. As previously mentioned, there were 3 types of saber-toothed cats. Here’s a quick breakdown of each in terms of size:

Smilodon Gracilis 120-220 lbs, shoulder height 30 in, length 6.5 ft. Smilodon Fatalis 350-620 lbs, shoulder height 40 in, length 7.2 ft. Smilodon Populator 450-950 lbs, shoulder height 47 in, length 7.5 ft.

For better visualization, you can compare the largest of the three (Smilodon Populator) to a current-day lion. It was a bit shorter than the lion due to its stocky legs; but what the S. populator lacked in height, it made up for with a robust body and enormous paws.

The smallest of these can be compared to a bobcat in size, while all three Smilodon had short, bobbed tails.

Era

We know that the big-toothed felines haven’t been around during your or my lifetime, but just how long has it been since they existed on our planet?

The last existing saber-toothed cat is estimated to have died around 10,000 years ago. Fossil records suggest that their era stretched from the Eocene to the Pleistocene epoch (56 million to 10,000 years ago).

Habitat

Saber-toothed cats were apex predators, meaning they were at the top of their food chain. This allowed them to thrive in just about any location. Fossils have been discovered in North America, Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. However, the site with the highest abundance of smilodon remains is right in L.A. at La Brea tar pits. Hundreds of thousands of fossils have been discovered in this location with that number continuing to grow.

Where their food went, they went. Woods and areas of dense vegetation drew in the herbivores that saber toothed-cats ate for dinner. They hunted in packs, crouching below tall grasses to stalk and ambush their prey. When they weren’t busy taking down unsuspecting victims, these surroundings provided them with sufficient shelter.

Digital Rendering of a saber toothed cat next to it'ss full skeleton

Extinction

Unfortunately, all good things have to end sometime, right? There isn’t a specific event that points to the extinction of these fascinating creatures. Rather, scientists have made an educated guess of what led up to it — competition, climate change, and dwindling food supply.

Their extinction came around the same time that most megafauna disappeared. This had a detrimental effect on the planet’s largest herbivores, which in turn also affected the saber-tooth cats’ food supply. Now, we’re left with a scaled-down version of the plants and animals that once were. That’s evolution, kids.

Answer: The saber-toothed cat’s closest living relative is…

D. Clouded leopard

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