New breed of prehistoric saber-tooth cat identified

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A Northern Illinois University biology professor who is an expert on prehistoric saber-tooth cats worked as an editor and contributor on a book that identifies a new kind of saber-tooth cat. 

This is the skull of a “Cookie-Cutter Cat.” A new book on which Virginia Naples of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb worked as an editor and contributor identifies it a third type of saber-tooth, one that makes the lions and tigers of today look like pussy cats [Credit: Jeff Cagle/Sun-Times Media]

“The Other Saber-tooths: Scimitar-tooth Cats of the Western Hemisphere” (Johns Hopkins University Press) claims what it calls “the Cookie-Cutter Cat” could chomp large, clean chunks of flesh from its prey. 

Cookie-Cutter Cat fossils were uncovered in the early 1980s from a north central Florida gravel pit. Amateur collectors thought they had the skull of a scimitar-tooth cat and the skeleton of a dirk-tooth saber-tooth, which were the two other known types of saber-tooth cats. 

But in the late 1990s — when NIU’s Virginia Naples, Larry Martin of the University of Kansas and fossil hunter John Babiarz began to study the fossils — it become apparent they represented a paleontological prize. 

“What they really had was one unique specimen,” said Naples, who lives in northwest suburban Hampshire. “We knew it was different than the other animals.” 

Fierce predator 

The Cookie-Cutter Cat turned out to be a cross between the two previously known saber-tooth varieties and may have been the most ferocious. 

The Cookie-Cutter Cat’s body was even more muscular than the California dirk-tooth. Dirk-tooth cats roamed the Rancho La Brea tar seeps in California. Hundreds were caught in the tar pits, and many of their complete skeletons have been recovered. 

Professor Virginia Naples shows off a skull cast of the saber-toothed Xenosmilus hodsonae on Wednesday at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb [Credit: Jeff Cagle/Sun-Times Media]

Such cats had elongated, finely serrated canine teeth and a short-legged, muscular body resembling that of a bear. Because of its heavy build, the cat could not run very fast for more than a short distance and probably ambushed its prey. 

Scimitar-tooth cats — many species of which have been found in North America, Europe and Asia — generally were pursuit predators. With a body like a cheetah and shorter and more coarsely serrated canines than its California cousin, the scimitar-tooth cat relied on its speed to catch prey, including baby mammoths weighing as much as a ton. 

The Cookie-Cutter possessed a fierce set of serrated biting teeth, including curved canines each measuring 3½ inches long. 

As Naples put it, these cats “had a whole mouthful of steak knives.” 

This particular type of saber-tooth likely would bite its prey repeatedly until its victim went into shock from loss of blood, Naples said 

Decade of research 

Naples, Martin and Babiarz edited the new big prehistoric cat book, a richly illustrated text based on nearly 10 years of research. In addition to the writings and research of the three editors, the book also includes contributions from other noted paleontologists. 

“The most significant book ever produced on saber-tooth cats was published all the way back in 1932,” Naples said. “Our book brings readers up to speed on new research and discoveries. Additionally, it’s the first comprehensive volume ever published on the scimitar-tooth cats.” 

Naples and her co-editors reconstruct what scimitar-tooth cats might have looked like, discuss how the animals captured and killed prey and describe how the ferocious felines interacted with non-prey animals. Highly detailed descriptions reveal the biology of the cats, explain how they originated, and set them in an evolutionary context. 

A skull
cast of the saber-toothed Xenosmilus hodsonae, dubbed the Cookie-Cutter
Cat, which gets its name from its large incisors that allow it to pull
out a chunk of flesh of its prey, rather than simply piercing the
arteries and veins of an animal for it to bleed out [Credit: Jeff
Cagle/Sun-Times Media]

“While we don’t know for sure what a saber-tooth cat would have looked like, I have done comparisons of the skull morphology with living species of cats and also have conducted reconstructions of the skull and facial muscles,” Naples said. “We’ve worked with professional illustrators as well, and our saber-tooth illustrations differ from the way the cat has been presented in past.” 

Studies by Naples and her colleagues indicate that, in comparison to the profile of a modern house cat, the nose of the saber tooth was pulled back, or “more of a Roman nose than the big square snout of a lion,” Naples said. 

The saber-tooth also needed to open its jaws wide to take in food. 

“It had to have lips that could stretch to allow the jaws to open wide, so the lips must have been bigger and looser than modern cats. It probably had jowls like a St. Bernard — and probably drooled like one, too,” Naples said. 

Weird animals 

Naples, a New England native, came to her interest in saber-tooths more than 20 years ago and early in her career at NIU. She was studying giant sloths — and she still does — which are larger, extinct relatives of the slow-moving, hard-to-spot sloths around today. Naples said Martin suggested they form a partnership researching “something equally high on the weirdness scale” — the robust-as-bears saber-tooths. 

As such, her work has taken her to every continent but Antarctica and to every country in the Americas and Europe but Uruguay. This summer, her travels took Naples to Oregon, Wyoming, Kansas and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to compare prehistoric saber-tooth bones to those of modern species. 

“With fossils, it’s like playing golf. You play it where it lies,” Naples said. 

If that weren’t enough adventure, Naples also is an aircraft hobbyist and a pilot living on a private airport, “where we have air shows over our back yards,” she said. 

Naples has two tabbies at her Hampshire home that she obtained from shelters. As for the panther rumored to roam the Plank Road area, Naples speculated that what people might have seen was a dark-coated mountain lion or cougar. 

It would be highly unlikely for an actual black panther to be in northern Illinois, but if there were one running wild, more than likely it would be one that escaped or was released from the illegal big cat trade, Naples said. 

Big cats “make terrible pets. They’re very hard on the drapes and furniture, not to mention they might kill your kids. If you’re that interested, get a pet from a shelter. You can learn 90 percent of all cat behaviors from a house cat,” Naples said. 

Author: Mike Danahey | Source: Chicago Sun Times [October 17, 2011]