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University of New South Wales: Embargoed for release: 1-Oct-2007 17:00 Eastern US Time


Sabrecat bit like a pussycat

Powerfully built, with upper canines like large, sharp knives, the sabre-toothed tiger was a fearsome predator of the Ice Age. Also called the sabre-tooth cat the beast’s scientific name was Smilodon. It ranks alongside Tyrannosaurus rex as the ultimate killing machine.


For more than 150 years, scientists have debated how Smilodon used its ferocious fangs to kill its prey. A new Australian study, published today in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, hopes to lay the arguments to rest. The results put a dent in Smilodon's reputation.


Scientists from the University of Newcastle and the University of New South Wales have been using a computer technique called Finite Element Analysis (FEA). Using this they have tested the force of the bite of the fearsome predator, and how it fed.


FEA is normally used to analyse and design trains, planes, cars and large structures. Instead the Australian scientists used the method to learn what forces a sabrecat skull could handle.


Skulls are much more complex then most man-made structures, says the University of Newcastle's Colin McHenry. He is lead author on the paper. "To apply the technique to a fossil big cat required some tricks engineers usually have to handle.


There have been a number of suggestions about how Smilodon killed, says UNSW palaeontologist Dr Steve Wroe. "Early researchers thought it had a weak bite. More recently people have suggested that the bite was strong."


The team used the skull of a modern-day lion for comparison. They found that Smilodon had a bite that was only about one third as powerful as a lion's of similar size. "For all its reputation, Smilodon had a wimpy bite," says Dr Wroe. "It bit like a moggy."


In a range of tests, the team found that the sabre-tooth skull performed poorly, under most conditions, compared to the lion's. This would have seriously limited the big-toothed cat to a very specific range of killing behaviours.


Although its bite was weak, Smilodon was still a formidable predator, says Dr Wroe. "Smilodon was an awesome beast - and what it lacked in bite force it more than made up for elsewhere."


"The sabrecat had an immensely powerful body; perfect for wrestling large prey to the ground. Our models show that it needed to do this before trying a bite," explains Mr McHenry. "Killing was more likely applied to the prey's throat, because it is easier to restrain the prey this way. Once the bite was done the prey would have died almost instantly."


Dr Wroe describes the lion as a "better all rounder" as a hunter. Smilodon was "massively over-engineered for the purposes of taking small prey, but a ruthlessly efficient hunter of big game."


The team is now applying their techniques to medical research involving dentists, surgeons and safety scientists.



What's it all about?


  1. What was the scientific name of the sabre-toothed tiger?
  2. Scientists were not sure how the beast used what to kill its prey?
  3. In which country do the scientists who carried out this latest research work?
  4. What is finite element analysis normally used for?
  5. What have these scientists used it for?
  6. Was it easy to use finite element analyis to study the forces on Smilodon's jaw?
  7. What sentence gave you the answer to the last question?
  8. What two possibilities about the bite of Smilodon were the scientists trying to decide between?
  9. What did their computer calculations using finite element analysis show them about Smilodon's bite?
  10. The new discovery about the strength of Smilodon's bite would have "seriously limited the big-toothed cat to a very specific range of killing behaviours". In your own words what does this mean?
  11. Even though its bite was pretty weak, Smilodon was still an awesome beast, say the scientists. How could it be awesome if it had "a wimpy bite"?
  12. The Australian scientists are now going to use their technique in medical research. If you were part of the team what would you like to use it to study?


Learning and teaching resources

There is a nice lesson plan on animal bites, which includes the sabre tooth and a host of other animals, from Skullduggery. Unfortunately although the plan is free, the lesson requires replica teeth, which aren't.


The La Brea tarpits website provides a rich source of Ice Age animals information and educational activities for students of all ages.


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