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Smilodon is a genus of felid cats in the extinct subfamily Machairodontinae.  The genus contains three recognized species: S. gracilis, S. fatalis, and S. facilitator, all which lived in North and South America during the Pleistocene era (between 2.5 mya–10,000 years ago).  Probably the most widely known of the saber-toothed cats, Smilodon species are often referred to as saber-toothed “tigers,” a misnomer as they are not closely related to modern tigers.  Their fossils were found in abundance in the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles, California, which has one of the largest collections of Smilodon fatalis fossils.  Smilodon fatalis was designated the California state fossil in 1973.

Smilodon cats had a robust build, well-developed forelimbs and exceptionally long, saber-like upper (maxillary) canines.  The habitat where they lived, forest and bushlands, would have provided cover for ambushing prey, which included bison, giant ground sloths, horses, camels and possibly young mammoths and mastodons. The jaws of Smilodon cats had a larger gape than modern cats and their upper canines were slender and fragile, suggesting that rather than grappling with or restraining their prey using their teeth these predators fatally stabbed their prey and waited for them to die (DeSantis et al. 2012 and references within).  Examination of wear patterns on their teeth indicates that Smilodon cats utilized the carcass of their prey less than modern felid predators, and avoided eating bone.  DeSantis et al. (2012) found this feeding preference consistent throughout the Smilodon fossil record, at least at La Brea, refuting the idea that declining prey resources (perhaps due to competition with humans) was a primary cause for the extinction of Smilodon, as this idea would predict increased tooth wear and breakage due to greater carcass utilization.  Another theory for extinction of the Smilodon is climate change.

There is ongoing debate about whether the Smilodon cats were social animals.  Their large numbers (relative to other species) in the La Brea Tar Pits and other fossil sites as well as the prevalence of healed bone injuries, suggest that they were social and might care for sick individuals (Carbone et al. 2009); on the other hand, their small brain size and highly vegetated habitat, and evidence of large numbers of modern, non-social animals at kill sites support the idea that Smilodon were solitary (McCall et al. 2003; Kifner 2009).

(Heald 1989; McCall et al. 2003; San Diego Zoo, 2009; Wikipedia 2014)


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