Last week I gave you these teeth to have a go at identifying:
It was a bit mean of me to only show the incisors, but I thought it would be way too easy otherwise and I thought that some of you would manage to get it. I was not wrong.
Despite the sparse information, James Bryant, Jennifer Macaire, Allen Hazen, sallie reynolds, Michelle Tabencki, Kaitlyn, Rémi and a tentative few others leaned towards one of the sabre-toothed cats, with most people opting for Smilodon. That is indeed what these teeth belonged to and if you want to be specific they’re from Smilodon fatalis Leidy, 1869.
Reconstruction of Smilodon fatalis skull. Image by Bone Clones, 2000
The mystery specimen and I go way back as it’s the one in the Geology Department of Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree many years ago. It inspired me to do a project on Smilodon, which sent me around a variety of UK museums in search of specimens to measure.
That was the start of my behind-the-scenes experience in museums and I met some fantastic people, including the legendary Andy Currant at the NHM, London, who was so helpful, knowledgeable and welcoming that it left an indelible mark on my attitude to collections access and curation.
I still have a soft spot for Smilodon and of all the palaeontological questions that I’d love to see resolved it’s how their bizarre canines worked. I never considered the “Akersten canine-shear-bite” [opens as pdf] as being biomechanically plausible, not least because it requires the jaws to close during the bite, which would in turn require these incisors to penetrate the skin and some (or all) of the underlying tissue of the prey.
While these incisors are robust, they’re just not the right kind of shape for that type of action as the straight and fairly level row would dissipate force quite evenly during a bite, rather than allowing the high point loads well suited to penetration.
There are other, more plausible methods proposed (e.g. Brown, 2014), but without seeing Smilodon in action it’s one of those mysteries that may never be satisfactorily resolved. And who wouldn’t want to see something as terrifying as a gigantic, sabre-toothed feline in action?
Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits. By Robert Bruce Horsfall, 1913