National Geographic

Smilodon the Vampire

A cast of Smilodon at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Photo by the author.

Aside from the woolly mammoth, no Pleistocene creature is more iconic than Smilodon. The vanished sabercat is a symbol of North America’s recently lost megafauna, but it’s also an Ice Age mystery. While the carnivore broadly resembled other felids – a cat is a cat is a cat – the predator’s fangs have confounded paleontologists for over a century. The sabercat’s impressive canines have been envisioned as slicing and stabbing weapons in multiple attack scenarios, including an offhand comment that cast Smilodon as a vampire.

Even though the literature of Smilodon and its awful gape grows with every passing year, John Merriam and Chester Stock’s 1932 monograph The Felidae of Rancho La Brea remains the essential reference on the famous asphalt seep’s cat fossils, most of all Smilodon. When Merriam and Stock compiled the book, though, no one knew how Smilodon hunted. Such enormous canines were obviously killing weapons, but how were they employed?

The La Brea researchers saw the canines of Smilodon as serrated knives. “In consummating an attack,” Merriam and Stock wrote, “the head would be drawn back by the powerful muscles lodged in the neck and attached to the occiput, while the lower jaw moving through a wide arc permitted the sabre-like canine teeth to function as stabbing weapons.” How Smilodon got in position to repeatedly slam its mouth into a bison or mastodon’s hide, the paleontologists didn’t say.

But there was another subtle feature that Merriam and Stock mentioned in passing that caught my attention when I read their monograph. Envisioning “the concluding moments of the attack,” the scientists pointed out that Smilodon had a “heavily corrugated gum which presumably covered the hard palate,” and that this feature “may have been advantageous in blood sucking.” Imagine a Smilodon crouched over a freshly killed horse, fangs buried to the hilt, slurping blood from the wounds.

There’s no evidence that Smilodon or any other sabercat was a specialized blood-sucker, though. The idea was a throw-away comment in a brief and speculative account of how the beast might have fed. Multiple analyses since the time of Merriam and Stock have rejected the stabbing hypothesis, and affirmed that Smilodon probably killed horses, camels, bison, baby mammoths, and other mid-sized herbivores of its time with bites to the neck or belly. Much like visions of leaping, carnivorous mastodons, blood-sucking sabercats have only ever existed in our imaginations.

References:

Andersson, K., Norman, D., Werdelin, L. 2011. Sabretoothed Carnivores and the Killing of Large Prey. PLoS ONE 6, 10: e24971. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024971

Merriam, J., Stock, C. 1932. The Felidae of Rancho La Brea. Carnegie Institute of Washington Publications, 442: 1-231

Turner, A., Antón, M., Salesa, M., Morales, J. 2011. Changing ideas about the evolution and functional morphology of Machairodontine felids. Estudios Geológicos 67, 2: 255-276

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