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aka "Saber-Toothed Tiger"

Saber-toothed cats are some of the best known and most popular of all Ice Age animals. Two different types of saber-toothed cats lived in the Americas 12,000 years ago. One type was the Scimitar Cat (Homotherium serum), which had shorter canines than the more familiar Saber-Toothed Tiger (Smilodon fatalis), which is the species discussed here. Despite its common name, the Saber-Toothed Tiger was more closely related to modern-day wildcats (pumas, bobcats, etc.) than to tigers.



This large wildcat was about the size of an African lion -- about 4-5 feet long and 3 feet tall, and weighing about 440 pounds. It had relatively short legs and a short, bobbed tail. Its 12-inch-long skull had 2 saber-like teeth, each about 7 inches long.

skeleton of a Smilodon

skull of a Smilodon

canine tooth of a Smilodon


Based on the locations in which its fossils have been found, it is likely that Smilodon lived on grassy plains and in open woodland.


Very powerful front legs and a short tail indicate that saber-toothed cats used stealth and ambush rather than speed to capture their prey. It may have eaten thick-skinned prey like mastodons, horses, and bison.

Fossil Record

Smilodons first appeared about 1.6 million years ago, and became extinct around 11,000 years ago. They are known mostly from fossils, frozen, mummified carcasses, and from ancient cave drawings. The pressures of a major climate change probably led to their extinction, but human hunting may have played a role as well.

The genus was named by Plieninger in 1846.

Thousands of Smilodon fossils have been found in late Pleistocene tar pits and rocks from North and South America. Bones from nearly 2,000 individuals have been recovered from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles alone, which is why Smilodon californicus was designated the California State Fossil.

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Mammalia
order Carnivora
family Felidae
subfamily Machairodontinae
genus Smilodon

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The Robinson Library >> Science >> Geology >> Paleontology

This page was last updated on 09/14/2017.