More than 15,000 years before Sinatra stalked the Strip, a different sort of cat was prowling around Las Vegas: the saber-toothed cat. Remains from this predator of the Pleistocene were recently unearthed in the desert north of Sin City, a first for the region.
“I hate to say, ‘We hit the jackpot’, this being Vegas – but we did!” San Bernardino County (Calif.) Museum paleontologist Eric Scott, who discovered the fossils, told the Highland Community News earlier in December.
Smilodon fatalis, though often called the "saber-toothed tiger," is no tiger – the ancient feline is more stout than modern big cats, and built more like a bear. It had a short tail like a bobcat, and of course, long and wickedly curving canines.
Just how the saber-toothed cat used its saber teeth is still a bone of contention: Did the fearsome cat use them for a killing bite? Or would the saber teeth have been too fragile to survive a bite into the bones of the cat's meal? Since no modern animals have comparable canines, scientists can't easily infer the answer.
In a 2007 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Australian researchers constructed a computer model of a saber-toothed cat's skull to explore how it may have killed its meals. The scientists concluded that S. fatalis could deliver a bite with only one-third the strength of a modern lion, meaning that its bite likely wasn't strong enough to take down running animals. Weaker bite strength would mean that the saber-toothed cat would have to be more careful about prolonged struggles with prey that could risk snapping off its canines.
To make a kill, a saber-toothed cat would probably have to be restraining its prey and quickly dispatch it with a bite to the neck, using its long canines to slice open an animal's jugular vein or shred its windpipe, the scientists said.
Another paper, published in the Zoological Journal of Linnean Society in 2007, says the evidence suggests that saber-toothed cats' canines were stronger and more flexible than they're often given credit for, meaning they could be deployed in shearing bites.
The newly discovered Smilodon fossils could help provide answers to the riddle of the saber-toothed cat's teeth, among other questions. The bones were originally dug up in 2003, but were cleaned and identified just this year.
“Meat-eaters are generally uncommon in the fossil record,” Scott told the Highland Community News. “In living communities, carnivores are far outnumbered by plant-eaters. The same holds true for past ecosystems. This makes fossil remains of extinct carnivores very rare and special – and very tough to find.”
The deserts of Nevada are turning out to be a rich mine for paleontologists in recent months. Shortly after the California researchers announced the saber-toothed cat find, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas team said they'd found what is likely the foot bone of a dire wolf (they're not just in "Game of Thrones," as it turns out), a predator that lived between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago. Dire wolves were, on average, larger than modern grey wolves and stockier as well, with short, thick legs.
In the Las Vegas Wash, where both the saber-toothed cat and dire wolf remains are found, scientists have also found fossilized bits of mammoths, birds, camels, bison and other creatures.
“If I'm going to get greedy, I guess I'd like to find a cheetah,” dire wolf discoverer and UNLV researcher Josh Bonde told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.