If you’re not often in paleontological circles, you may not know that there are multiple species of saber-toothed cats, and even many other species of animals that exhibit the saber-toothed morphology. Some of these are downright bizarre. We’ll get into those another time, however. Today, let’s dig into the history of the famous Smilodon fatalis (which in modern-day zeitgeist, is THE saber-tooth cat) and the unusual man who uncovered it in North America.
While not the largest saber-toothed cat on record, Smilodon fatalis, or “fatal scalpel” was still a formidable predator in its day. Weighing in at approximately 350-620 lbs when full grown and over 3’ at the shoulder, adult Smilodon fatalis boasted large canine teeth up to six inches long,. These canines are now thought to have been to deliver a severe slashing wound, rather than gripping prey. Coupled with its compact, bob-cat like body (it even had a little bobbed tail!) and heavily muscled forelegs, it is likely Smilodon fatalis preferred wooded hunting grounds. In such habitat, they could ambush prey such as bison and tapir and immediately hold them down to deliver a fatal blow. Despite its highly lethal abilities and wide distribution throughout modern-day North America, however, Smilodon fatalis went extinct about 10,000 years ago, with no recorded sign of their fossils being uncovered until the 1800s.
The first fossils of saber-toothed cats were uncovered in Brazil by Danish naturalist Peter Wilhem Lund in the 1830s’s, but the first to be discovered in the United States were described in 1869 by paleontologist Jospeh Leidy.
Unlike many of his peers in paleontology at the time, who were mostly rich individuals who took up the study as a hobby, Joseph had a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and training in scientific illustration and the use of the microscope. (Side note: he was the first person to solve a murder using a microscope!) Additionally, he included his wife, Anna, in his research, when she showed keen interest in it. Considering that women were only just beginning to be allowed into higher education at the time, this was certainly an anomaly for the early 1800s. But it reflected on Joseph’s personality and passions as a whole. He was one of the most prolific paleontologists in America, an enthusiastic teacher and an adoptive parent to the orphaned child of one of his colleagues, and is quoted as saying the gaining of knowledge matters more than who discovers it. Holding such sentiments as that as he did, it is not surprising he was not caught up in the Bone Wars of the American Gilded Age. More on that another day.
Joseph’s discovery of saber-toothed cat fossils in North America occurred in Texas, when he uncovered several tooth fragments in a cave that did not match previously uncovered remains of prehistoric American Lions (which he was also first to discover). Dubbed Felis Fatalis, or “deadly cat” at that time, his fossils were then later identified as identical to previously discovered Smilodon fossils. Afterward, traces of the saber-toothed cat were scarce in North America. Then in 1901 paleontological excavations of La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles California, began, and since then the digs have yielded hundreds of individual fossilized Smilodon fatalis.
Unsurprisingly, Smilodon fatalis is now the state fossil of California, and among the most popular of widely-known megafauna species. Understandable, considering its striking appearance and the discovery of its fossils throughout the United States.
My recent paper taxidermy work Crowned Saber for my North American Megafauna project was inspired by saber-toothed cat fossils uncovered in the Midwest, in particular. The Midwest is an area often overlooked when considering American conservation, so I wanted to highlight the area first in this project. By surrounding the Smilodon fatalis skull with modern-day goldenrod, a native plant now so prolific in the midwest that it’s often considered a weed, I hope to make viewers reconsider what they deem commonplace in their local wild areas and parks. Numerous species in the midwest are considered endangered, and if we’re not careful, they may someday become as unusual to us as Smilodon fatalis is now.
Thank you for joining me today on this dive into the history of Smilodon fatalis in North America and the surprisingly forward-thinking and benevolent paleontologist who discovered it there. If you enjoyed this dive, please check back here often, as each week I'll be sharing what I discover about the history of megafauna in North America, and other fascinating finds, books, and goods related to paleontology. Or, follow me on Instagram or TikTok and check out my online shop for art and goods inspired by paleontology, conservation, and naturalism.
Artist, Beastie and Bone