Supermodeled sabercat, predatory behavior in Smilodon fatalis revealed by high-resolution 3D computer simulation
The American sabercat Smilodon fatalis is among the most charismatic of fossil carnivores. Despite broad agreement that its extraordinary anatomy reflects unique hunting techniques, after >150 years of study, many questions remain concerning its predatory behavior. Were the "sabers" used to take down large prey? Were prey killed with an eviscerating bite to the abdomen? Was its bite powerful or weak compared with that of modern big cats? Here we quantitatively assess the sabercat's biomechanical performance using the most detailed computer reconstructions yet developed for the vertebrate skull. Our results demonstrate that bite force driven by jaw muscles was relatively weak in S. fatalis, one-third that of a lion (Panthera leo) of comparable size, and its skull was poorly optimized to resist the extrinsic loadings generated by struggling prey. Its skull is better optimized for bites on restrained prey where the bite is augmented by force from the cervical musculature. We conclude that prey were brought to ground and restrained before a killing bite, driven in large part by powerful cervical musculature. Because large prey is easier to restrain if its head is secured, the killing bite was most likely directed to the neck. We suggest that the more powerful jaw muscles of P. leo may be required for extended, asphyxiating bites and that the relatively low bite forces in S. fatalis might reflect its ability to kill large prey more quickly, avoiding the need for prolonged bites.