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Perforated skulls suggest saber-toothed cats fighting each other

The fang of a saber-toothed cat fits perfectly into the puncture wound of a saber-toothed cat.
The fang of a saber-toothed cat fits perfectly into the puncture wound of a saber-toothed cat.
Image: Nicolas R. Chimento

An badysis of two saber-toothed cat skulls suggests that these extinct creatures engage in intraspecific combat. It is further proof that the exaggerated fangs of saber-toothed cats were strong enough to penetrate the bone.

The saber-toothed cats disappeared about 11,000 years ago, but these fearsome predators dominated the Pleistocene landscapes for millions of years. The purpose of their iconic fangs, however, is the subject of a long debate, with some scientists arguing that the fangs, which grew up to 28 centimeters (11 inches) in length, were too fragile, and the saber tooth bite Also Weak, to be used to attack prey. According to this theory, fangs were only used once a saber-toothed cat tore down its prey with its huge front legs, at which time the elongated upper canines were used to pierce the soft and vulnerable neck.

The new research published in the science magazine Comptes Rendus Palevol now presents a serious challenge for this scenario. A pair of saber-tooth skulls, both belonging to the species. Smilodon populator, exhibited puncture marks consistent with a bite inflicted by a member of the same species. The finding suggests that the saber-tooth fangs were strong enough to penetrate the bones, while shedding new light on their social behavior, namely that saber-toothed cats fought each other. The authors of the new study, led by Nicolás Chimentoa and Federico Agnolin of the Museum of Natural Sciences of Argentina, theorize that ancient cats were involved in intraspecific combat, similar to modern felines.

The badysis of the two punctures (one in each skull) revealed a clearly elliptical shape. Each hole was located in the upper nasal area between the eyes, and were slightly sunken, suggesting that pressure was exerted on the skulls. One of the samples showed signs of healing, which means that the individual survived for a long time after enduring the injury.

"The size and general contours of the lesions present in [the] the specimens … are consistent with the size and contours observed in the upper canines of Smilodon", Wrote the authors." In fact, when a superior canine blade shaped a Smilodon the sample is inserted through the opening described, both coincide perfectly in size and shape ".

According to the shape of the holes, the authors said that it is not probable, but not impossible, that the punctures were caused by the kicking action of a hoofed prey animal, which has two to four digits. The holes also did not match the shape of the teeth of other predators, such as bears, an animal that would have created a puncture wound that was noticeably rounded. The researchers also said that it is unlikely that the punctures were caused by a giant sloth with large claws, since its claws "should have resulted in lesions very different from those reported here," the authors wrote. The "shape and general characteristics of the lesions suggest that they were inflicted by the upper canines of another Smilodon person during [antagonistic] interactions, "the authors concluded.

It is important to note that similar lesions are often observed in live felines, including leopards, pumas, cheetahs and panthers. Such injuries, the authors wrote, are often the result of violent encounters between men and, sometimes, women, and often result in the death of one of the participants. The new study suggests that the same kind of thing happened among cats with saber teeth, but that's still speculation.

It is quite surprising what can be extracted from a couple of holes. This evidence suggests that saber-toothed cats could possibly have used their fangs to penetrate the bones to knock down their prey. And, in fact, this is not a completely wild claim; Previous fossil evidence has already hinted that saber-toothed cats hunted giant armadillo glyptodonts in this way.

We always knew that saber-toothed cats were intimidating, but this role, along with the startling image of the skulls above, suddenly makes them look much more terrifying.

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