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The Smilodon is the best known of the sabre-toothed cats

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, Prehistory on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

Smilodon,  picture, image, illustration

Smilodon or sabre-toothed tiger out hunting by Angus McBride.

In Los Angeles in California there is a small park, and in this park there is a small lake surrounded by railings. The lake looks quite like any other but is, in fact, a pool of tar. There are other such lakes in this locality, which is known as Ranco-La-Brea.

These pools lay in the middle of a vast desolate plain 140,000 years ago. Dust naturally collected on the tarry surface and when rain fell the tar lakes became natural but treacherous reservoirs. From miles around the animals smelled the water and hurried to slake their thirst. The sticky tar trapped these poor creatures. Their cries of distress soon attracted the attention of the flesh-eating creatures, who in turn became bogged down in the tar, whilst attempting to make an easy kill.

Through the course of time the tar has protected the bones of these unfortunate creatures, preserving them so well that scientists can even find on them evidence of the diseases they suffered from.

One of the animal remains found in this way was that of the sabre-toothed carnivore known as Smilodon. Practically all the Smilodon skeletons found in the tar pools were those of young and inexperienced Smilodons, the more experienced being too intelligent to hunt their prey in this way.

The most striking feature of the Smilodon was its pair of sabre-shaped canines, which were sharpened along the rear edge and grew to a length of about 6 inches. When the mouth was closed, these fearsome weapons projected far down on either side of the lower jaw. To make full use of them the beast had to open his mouth very wide – far wider than is normally necessary – and to do this he was aided by the special way in which his lower jaw was attached to the skull.

No-one could doubt that Smilodon caused much alarm and fear wherever he travelled, hunting the early forms of horse, gazelles, antelopes and even the enormous Mastodon. His large scale destruction of herbivorous animals might well have aided in their extinction. Their extinction in turn might well have brought about his own disappearance.

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