Commonly called the sabertoothed tiger, Smilodon fatalis was a large predatory cat that roamed North and South America about 1.6 million to 10,000 years ago, when there was also a prehistoric cat called the American lion.
A study appearing in the November 5 issue of the Journal of Zoology examined size differences between sexes of these fearsome felines using subtle clues from bones and teeth.
The researchers report that while male American lions were considerably larger than females, male and female sabertoothed cats were indistinguishable in size. The findings suggest that sabertooths may have been less aggressive than their fellow felines, researchers say.
In species where males fight for mates, bigger, heavier males have a better chance of winning fights, fending off their rivals and gaining access to females. After generations of male-male competition, the males of some species evolve to be much larger than their mates.
Most big cats have a form of sexual dimorphism where males are bigger than females, said co-author Julie Meachen-Samuels, a biologist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC. So she and Wendy Binder of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles wanted to know if extinct sabertooths and American lions showed the same size patterns as big cats living today.
When it comes to fossils, sorting males from females can be tricky. "It's hard to tell who's a male and who's a female in the fossil record," said Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a biologist at UCLA who has studied these animals extensively but was not an author on the paper. "Unless you're lucky enough to get some DNA, or you're working with an animal where males have horns and females don't."
For species that keep growing into adulthood, simply separating the fossils into two groups by size may not do the trick, either. "It's easy to get a younger, smaller male confused with an older, larger female if you're just dividing them by size," Meachen-Samuels said.
The researchers accounted for continued growth using subtle clues from fossilized teeth. "Teeth fill in over time," said Binder. "In young animals the tooth cavity is basically hollow, but as they get older it fills in with dentin. It won't give you an exact age, but it can give you a relative age in terms of young, middle aged or old," Binder added.
Meachen-Samuels and Binder x-rayed the lower teeth and jaws of 13 American lions and 19 sabertoothed cats recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. To account for growth over time, they measured tooth cavity diameter and plotted it against jaw length for each species. Plotted this way, the data for the American lion fell easily into two groups, regardless of age. The researchers concluded that "the little ones were females and the big ones were males," said Van Valkenburgh.
In contrast, sabertoothed cat sizes seemed to be governed solely by age. It would appear that the males were indistinguishable from their mates. "Even by incorporating a measure of age, you can't distinguish males and females," said Meachen-Samuels.
Size differences between the sexes tend to be more impressive in species where male aggression is more intense, and in the extinct American lion, size differences between the sexes were even more dramatic than in lions living today.
The closest living relative of the American lion, "African lions engage in aggressive takeovers where one to several males will take over an entire pride – the males have battles to the death," said Van Valkenburgh.
"Living lions have huge sexual dimorphism," said Meachen-Samuels.
Based on their findings, the researchers think the American lion probably lived in male-dominated groups, where 1-2 males monopolized and mated with multiple females. "My guess would be that the American lion was similar to African lions, where males guard groups of females," said Meachen-Samuels.
"But we don't see that in the sabertoothed cat," Binder said. The size similarity in sabertoothed cats suggests that male sabertooths may have been less aggressive than their larger cousins. "Rather than males having harems of females, the males and females in a group might have been more equal," Binder said.
CITATION: Meachen-Samuels, J. and W. Binder (2009). "Sexual Dimorphism and Ontogenetic Growth in the American Lion (Panthera atrox) and Sabertoothed Cat (Smilodon fatalis) from Rancho La Brea." Journal of Zoology.
The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is an NSF-funded collaborative research center operated by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.
Robin Ann Smith | EurekAlert!
Drone vs. truck deliveries: Which create less carbon pollution?
31.05.2017 | University of Washington
New study: How does Europe become a leading player for software and IT services?
03.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI)
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Information Technology