In public imagination, the sabre-toothed cat Smilodon ranks alongside Tyrannosaurus rex as the ultimate killing machine. Powerfully built, with upper canines like knives, Smilodon was a fearsome predator of Ice-Age America's lost giants.
For more than 150 years, scientists have debated how this iconic predator used its ferocious fangs to kill its prey. Now a new Australian study, published today in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, hopes to lay the arguments to rest. And the results will put in dent in Smilodon's reputation.
Scientists from the University of New South Wales and University of Newcastle have used a computer-based technique called Finite Element Analysis (FEA) to test the bite force and feeding mechanics of the fearsome predator.
FEA, normally used in the analysis of trains, planes and cars, allowed the team to "reverse engineer" designs to find out what sort of forces a structure like a sabrecat skull was able to handle.
"Skulls are much more complex then most man-made structures, and to apply the technique to a fossil big cat required some tricks engineers usually have to handle," says the University of Newcastle's Colin McHenry, lead author on the paper.
"Historically there have been a number of interpretations about how Smilodon killed," says UNSW palaeontologist Dr Steve Wroe. "Early researchers thought it had a weak bite. More recently, people have suggested that the bite was strong."
Using the skull of a modern-day lion for comparison, the team determined that Smilodon had a relatively weak bite - about one third as powerful as a lion of similar size. "For all its reputation, Smilodon had a wimpy bite" says Dr Wroe. "It bit like a moggy."
In a range of "digital crash-tests", the team found that under most conditions, the sabre-tooth skull performed very poorly compared to that of the lion. This would have seriously limited the big toothed fossi
|Contact: Mary O'Malley|
University of New South Wales