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Why didn’t the saber-toothed tigers survive?

Saber-toothed tiger skull/Vitezslav Halamka, Adobe Stock

A researcher offers a suggestion from her analysis of teeth from the la Brea tarpits: From ScienceDaily:

“Isotopes from the bones previously suggested that the diets of saber-toothed cats and dire wolves overlapped completely, but the isotopes from their teeth give a very different picture,” said DeSantis, an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt. “The cats, including saber-toothed cats, American lions and cougars, hunted prey that preferred forests, while it was the dire wolves that seemed to specialize on open-country feeders like bison and horses. While there may have been some overlap in what the dominant predators fed on, cats and dogs largely hunted differently from one another.”

To study these ancient predators, she employs dentistry — taking molds of the teeth and shaving off tiny bits of enamel for chemical analysis. Information about everything the animal ate lies within the isotopes, she said. Further, the microscopic wear patterns on teeth can clarify who was eating flesh or scavenging on bones.

It’s likely that those giant predators went extinct due to climate change, the arrival of humans to their environment or a combination of the two, she said, and her team is working to clarify the cause of the extinction with multiple colleagues across six institutions as part of a separate on-going study.

What they know is predators alive today in the Americas were better able to adapt their diets. Instead of only feeding on large prey, they could effectively hunt small mammals, scavenge what they could from carcasses or do both. Paper. (open access) – Larisa R.G. DeSantis, Jonathan M. Crites, Robert S. Feranec, Kena Fox-Dobbs, Aisling B. Farrell, John M. Harris, Gary T. Takeuchi, Thure E. Cerling. Causes and Consequences of Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinctions as Revealed from Rancho La Brea Mammals. Current Biology, 2019; 29 (15): 2488 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.06.059 More.

If climate change, humans, or any other effect tended to mean smaller prey animals, it’s clear what happened: Saber teeth are not needed for dealing with sheep and calves. A mountain lion lugs less equipment around but gets the same value.

See also: Humans off the hook for ancient African mammal extinction?

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