Prehistoric Saber-Toothed Predators Had Massive Arms

Posted on January 5, 2012

Extinct Saber Toothed Cat

A study published in the journal Paleobiology says prehistoric saber-toothed predators had thick, robust arm bones, which are an indicator of forelimb strength. The researchers found the killer combination of large sharp teeth and strong arms arose repeatedly in different saber-toothed predators over time. The combination gave the predators an advantage when catching and killing prey.

Saran Twombly, program director in NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences, says, "In this case, the key to being an efficient predator integrated canines and forelimbs across different groups of felids and led to the development of different combinations of these traits. It was the combination, rather than any single trait, that allowed a diverse group of organisms to thrive as predators."

Earth was once home to a number of toothy carnivores that no longer roam the wilds. Nimravids (saber-toothed cats) were meat-eaters that flourished for almost 35 million years, from about 42 to 7 million years ago, alongside another group of extinct predators, the barbourofelids, which lived from 17 to 9 million years ago, when they died out.

The teeth of saber-toothed predators were actually much more fragile than teeth found in modern cats. Julie Meachen, a paleontologist at the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, North Carolina, says, "Cats now have canines that are short and round in cross-section, so they can withstand forces in all directions. That comes in handy for hunting -- their teeth are better able to withstand the stress and strain of struggling prey without breaking."

Discover says the clouded leopard is the closest animal living today that resembles the extinct saber-toothed cat. The clouded leopard likes to attack from trees and has large canines combined with strong forearms.

Photo: National Park Service