The Real Top-Cat
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Glossing over the many creatures that lived during the period of the last Ice-Age, it wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t talk about a certain feline friend we know and love from the movies. Yes, today we are talking about the Sabre-toothed cat. Yes, Diego may be fun, but don’t get confused. These creatures were some of the deadliest predators of their time, much like the big-cats (lions, tigers, and leopards) are today. Of all the deadliest cats of the time, there was one that has received the most attention. This is of course, the Smilodon (Smile-oh-Don). But it’s most likely that you know him as the Sabre-toothed-tiger.
Let’s hope you aren’t unlucky (or lucky if you become a biologist) enough to ever see a big-cat up close. You’d realise that although they look tiny in the pictures, these big-cats are definitely big. Now imagine one that was even bigger, weighing about 300 kilos with two razor sharp canine teeth jutting out of its mouth. That’s definitely not something you would want to see running at you. The Smilodon might not have been as big as a woolly mammoth, but these cats were definitely big. Too big for you and I to handle. They were also stacked with muscles, especially in their front limbs, and although the canine teeth from their upper jaw weren’t super strong, helped this ancient big-cat to take down animals much bigger and stronger than them, such as bison, camelops (an ancient camel species) and other big mammals.
Smilodon fossils are commonly found in the North American continent, but some have also been found in South America, which means they must have been a very successful species. After studying these fossils, scientists think that these ancient big-cats must have been ambush predators, much like the big-cats of today, and lived in forests and bush habitats where they would be able to hide in the cover of the forest of tall grass, and make surprise attacks to hunt down their food. There is a big debate among researchers whether they hunted in groups, or spent their days alone. We also don’t know yet on what exactly they looked like. Did they have plain coats like a Lion? Or spotted ones like Jaguars and Leopards?
Similar, but are they?
Fossils can share only a spoonful of information about the sabre-toothedtigers. Without having seen one in real life, trying to learn about them is like trying to piece together a puzzle without knowing what it would look like in the end. The best thing we can do is try to find connections to their modern-day cousins, and try to piece the puzzle together using them as reference. So far, what scientists have learnt seems to say that we’re on the right path, putting the puzzle pieces together. But we’ve got a lot more to learn. So research continues.
What happened to them?
It would be hard to imagine that sabre-toothed-tigers had a hard time surviving in their natural habitat. They were some of the most amazing hunters of that time. But we don’t see any Smilodons today (if you do, don’t forget to tell me). You must be wondering what happened to them. If you ask the palaeontologists (the scientists who study fossils) what happened, the answer they’ll give you is a sold, ‘we don’t know.’ But what they have done is made a guess, based on the things we do know. We do know that these big cats disappeared around 10,000 years ago, near the end of that Ice-Age. We also know that a lot of other huge animals died during that period of time as well. Palaeontologists believe that what killed the sabre-toothed-tiger, was global warming. With that, the number of big animals that they could hunt started to die off. Without enough food, their numbers must have kept going down, until it was too late, and the Smilodons were no more.
A lesson for us
Today, more animals are dying than ever before thanks to global warming, and we’re the ones responsible for it. Even now, the many big cats around the world, and even in Sri Lanka are in danger of becoming extinct, just like the sabretoothed-tiger. We need to do the small things we can to save water, electricity and protect the environment now, so that what happened to the sabre-toothedtiger, won’t happen to the big-cats that live today.