8 Prehistoric Saber-Toothed Animals
By Mark Mancini
The first Ice Age movie hit theaters in 2002—and with it came the cinematic debut of “Scrat," an accident-prone saber-toothed squirrel with an insatiable lust for acorns (as of this writing, the manic critter’s Facebook page has netted more than 12,000 “likes”). Although Scrat is a fictitious animal, these distinctive canines were donned by a vast array of prehistoric creatures from cats and marsupials to deer and even salmon. Here are eight of the most unusual.
1. Gorgonops: A Whiskered Predator
Named for the gorgon of Greek mythology, Gorgonops stalked the plains of South Africa some 250 million years ago—long before the first dinosaur came along.
Intriguingly, however, this killer and its relatives (“gorgonopsians”) were much more closely-akin to us, even sporting whiskers and (according to some) scale-less skin. In recent years, gorgonopsians have gained publicity as frequent antagonists on the time-traveling BBC series Primeval.
2. Machaeroides: The First Saber-Toothed Mammal
As far as true mammals are concerned, Machaeroides is the earliest known. Stout and powerfully built, this terrier-sized carnivore lived approximately 40 million years ago in modern-day Wyoming.
3. Uintatherium: A Bizarre Herbivore
Saber teeth proved to be remarkably versatile throughout the course of evolution. Hence, just as they’d be used to disembowel hapless victims by an assortment of predatory felines, these mysterious mammals likely employed them for gathering aquatic plants and territorial disputes. Another distinctive feature is the quartet of knobs (scientifically dubbed “ossicones”) atop their prehistoric noggins.
For a stop-motion and massively-oversized Uintatherium (in reality, they were roughly the size of a modern white rhino), check out this 1992 Nissin Cup-O-Noodle Ad:
4. Longistromeryx: A Saber-Toothed Deer
Four separate species of this Nebraskan genus are known to science. The function of their odd canines remains something of a mystery, but the official website of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park highlights some of the bizarre company it kept 12 million years ago.
5. Oncorhynchus rastrosus: A Salmon With A Nasty Bite
Native to the rivers and streams of Ice Age Oregon and California, this saber-toothed salmon reached more than six feet in length—an absolutely massive size by salmon standards. According to paleo-ichthyologists (prehistoric fish experts), its closest living relative is the sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka).
6. Smilodon: The Legendary Saber-Toothed Cat
Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History
In actuality, there were more than a dozen species of “saber-toothed cat" (none of which, by the way, was a tiger). But Smilodon is by far the best-known: More than 100 specimens have been unearthed at the La Brea Tar Pits alone. But how did the animal whose Latin name literally means “knife tooth” use its dreaded sabers? No consensus exists, but there’s certainly no shortage of ideas. These include relying on powerful forelimbs to subdue prey before severing its windpipe and throwing back their heads and repeatedly jabbing their target. A particularly speculative hypothesis holds that they may have even been “blood-sucking” tools.
7. Thylacosmilus: A Prehistoric ‘Copy Cat’
“Convergent Evolution” is a term used to describe “the independent emergence of similar traits and body outlines in unrelated organisms." Often, the life forms in question are separated by thousands of miles, as in the case of the aforementioned Smilodon and Thylacosmilus—a marsupial-like carnivore from present-day South America.
8. Gomphotaria: A Four-Tusked Walrus
Denver Museum of Nature and Science paleontologist Kirk Johnson once correctly observed that “walruses are saber-toothed seals.” Particularly well-endowed was Gomphotaria, which lived off the North American western seaboard and boasted two sets of saber-teeth. These were rooted in the marine mammal’s upper and lower jaws. A rather technical account on these fascinating beasts can be seen here.