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The Green Life: Sabertooth Cats Surprisingly Social

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October 31, 2008

Sabertooth Cats Surprisingly Social

A reconstructed scene in the Pleistocene of western North America, showing a group of sabertooth cats of the species Smilodon fatalis, with several adults and cubs. Artwork by Mauricio Antón. Graphic courtesy of UCLA Newsroom. Sabertooth cats, it turns out, weren't much like our famously independent felines. According to new research published in the Royal Society's journal Biology Letters, the long extinct cats were probably social animals, hunting and hanging out together like lions. (With declining populations, by the way, that species may soon go the way of its ancient cousin--along with one in four of today's mammals.)

Scientists from UCLA and two South African universities used an unusual technique to investigate behavior of the cats, which went extinct more than 10,000 years ago. Other researchers have estimated the densities of carnivore species in eastern and southern Africa by playing recorded calls of lions, hyenas, and distressed prey. The recordings attract social carnivores in direct proportion to their abundance in the surrounding area. Solitary animals tend to stay away, probably because they lack a pack of friends to back them up in an encounter with predators that might have also turned out for the meal.

For the sabertooth study, scientists compared data from the playback research to data from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a major fossil deposit where herbivores became stuck in asphalt and apparently lured packs of hungry wolves and, wouldn't you know it, sabertooths. The proportion of sabertooth fossils at La Brea matches that of large social carnivores attracted to the playbacks. According to the lead author of the study, the results indicate "that this extinct cat was more likely to roam in formidable gangs than as a secretive, solitary animal."

Formidable gangs, however, couldn't get sabertooth cats through the end of the last Ice Age. Perhaps, against all odds, the King of the Jungle will fare better in the face of climate change.

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