The Smiling Smilodon

A reconstruction of a Smilodon fatalis skeleton.
“Smilodon fatalis at La Brea” by flickr user Ian Abbott is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Ten thousand years ago, this country was different from today; megafauna such as the mastodon and prehistoric horses were abundant. Among them was a predator like no other. Standing at 1.05 meters (41 inches) at the shoulders, and weighing about 260 kilograms (620 lbs.) was an apex predator known as the saber-toothed cat or Smilodon.

The exact name for North America species is known as Smilodon fatalis. This feline was one of a kind for its era. With its elongated, 7-inch canines protruding out its mouth, this species stalked the Americas looking for prey to hunt. When a Smilodon finds its prey, a herd of Pleistocene horses, the cat gets ready to strike! But before we finish this scenario, we must know how the saber-toothed cat would’ve hunted. This topic has been of much debate for several decades. However, paleontologists seem to agree that the large canines were used for hunting. We will examine how the saber-tooth cat might’ve used their teeth based on recent evidence and CAT scans discovered by paleontologists within the last decade.

Social Structure

To understand how this extinct predator caught and killed its prey, we must first ask if the Smilodon was a social cat or a solitary killer. The issue is … we aren’t sure of the animal’s social structure yet. The primary issue when studying this behavior is that there is enough evidence to both support and refute social behavior. 

Supporting Evidence

Some supporting evidence for Smilodon being a social cat is from the sign of wounds healing. In the 2003 documentary Ice Age Prehistoric Mammals, paleontologists argue that Smilodon was a social cat as some of the injuries, such as a dislocated pelvis and broken femur, showed signs of being healed. These wounds would’ve been fatal for any solitary animal; however, since many specimens had survived long enough for these wounds to heal, many paleontologists see definitive proof of social behavior in saber-toothed cats (2003, 14:47-16:03).

Other evidence supporting a social structure is that saber-toothed cat’s specialized teeth took a long time to grow. Feranec suggests that the teeth grew at a rate of 7 mm per month and took about 18 months to fully grow (2003). Meaning that they were dependent on adults for food for almost two years. Finally, examination of their tongue bone indicates that they were able to roar – similar to lions – suggesting social communication. (iNaturalist, 2019).

Refuting Evidence

While there is considerable amount of evidence for the Smilodon being social, there is enough evidence to refute that as well. McCall et al. refuted this hypothesis by stating the cat’s brain wasn’t big enough to support social behavior outside of mating, territory dispute and parental care (2003). Valkenburgh et al. also point out that the amount of saber-toothed cats at the tar pits, which contained the most extensive distribution of Ice Age animals in California, were due to coincidence rather than a social gathering, suggesting that predators were all attracted by the call of prey in despair rather than traveling together (2009).

It’s near impossible to tell whether this cat was social animal based on the evidence given to us. For our scenario, however, the saber-toothed cat will hunt solo. In order to learn how saber-toothed cats hunted, we much now learn how they killed their prey.

The Killing Bite

The saber-toothed cat’s teeth, as mentioned before, were very long lethal weapons. Despite their length, however, they were surprisingly fragile.

A bobcat sits in the snow along the Madison River.
A bobcat sits in the snow along a river. (Photo by Neal Herbert/National Park Service)

In the modern-day, big cats such as lions and tigers use their canines as vice grips to strangle their prey. If the saber-toothed cat were to do the same thing, its teeth would crack among any shaking pressure of struggling prey (Figueirido, et al., 2018). This would mean that the Smilodon had to use a different form of killing strategy, different from cats today. Valkenburgh and Meachen-Samuels noticed that all saber-toothed cat specimens had very robust forelimbs, suggesting they were very muscular for their size (2010). The iNaturalist research website also states that the cat’s tail was too short to chase down its prey, as a long tail would assist with balance when the prey turns, meaning it probably hunted less like an African lion and more like a bobcat (2019). Based on this evidence, this ancient cat would most likely have used its strong forelimbs to hold down its prey, then performed a shearing bite with its elongated canine to cut open the windpipe or cut an artery to cause massive blood loss.


Saber-toothed cat skull
“Saber-Toothed Cat Skull” by flickr user Travis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Now that we have a clear picture of this animal, let’s head back to our scenario: We are back to our predator (based on recent evidence, it would’ve been alone for this hunt) crouching closer and closer to its prey. With its short tail, the balance would be an issue when chasing prey. He would continue to creep until he was in range to pounce. The animal would struggle on the ground while its herd fled. Using its robust forelimbs, the cat would wrestle its prey down to the ground. Once the animal is in place, a saber-toothed cat will take a lethal bite to the throat, aiming for the jugular or an artery for it to bleed to death. Once the large cat has made the bite, it would hold the prey down as it struggles to breathe from a broken windpipe or to choke on its blood, trying to wail its last cry for help until it ultimately loses its life.


Smilodons were extremely successful hunters, capable of taking down prey as large as a mastodon. Their specialized hunting method, however, would become their downfall. When the megafauna’s population started to decline, so did the Smilodons. The name of this extinct feline will live on through the bones it leaves behind and the stories they will tell to paleontologists of the past, present and future.

James Harris III
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods