For more than 150 years, scientists have debated how Smilodonused 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 fearsomepredator, and how it
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 palaeontologistDr 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
In a range of tests, the team found that the sabre-tooth skullperformed 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 formidablepredator, 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 "massivelyover-engineered for the purposes of taking small prey, but a ruthlesslyefficient
hunter of big game."
The team is now applying their techniques to medical research involving dentists,
surgeons and safety scientists.
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?
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"?
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.