AP, Discovery, etc: Saber-toothed cats: all tooth, no bite?

A team of Australian and Brit researchers say at least one saber-toothed cat, the iconic Smilodon fatalis of La Brea tarpits fame, may have had terrific fangs but its jaw muscles didn’t match the cutlery. It’s in PNAS, with a press release from the Univ. of S. Wales. Several outlets are picking it up. An African lion could probably bite three times as hard. All this comes via finite element, computer analysis of a fossil Smilodon skull to a modern lion’s skull to glean how much force they could deliver before facing mechanical failure.

The question of course is what those big teeth were for, then. The giant canines after all were in the maxilla, not the jaw itself. Maybe chewing and jaw-closing ability had little to do with their utility while trying to hold, wrestle, stab, or otherwise subdue struggling prey? ’tis a puzzle. Maybe it froze its dinners with fear. Whatever its technique it was one specialized cat.

Many outlets pick up the press packet’s opening suggestion that these cats “bit like a pussycat” and ran with it way too far – declaring them as not so fearsome, wimps, pussycats, and so on. In light of evidence they took down enormous animals somehow, and were far more muscular than big cats today, had stupendous claws, and could surely deliver a poke in the jugular with those teeth, the new analysis merely seems to mean they are all the more impressive and mysterious.

Too many reporters and headline writers went more for an opening gag before getting to the real story.



BBC Jonathan Amos writes that “its reputation takes something of a knock” , but gets quickly around to calling them killing machines; Independent (UK) Amol Rajan has the hed saying it was just a pussycat; Telegraph (UK) Roger Highfield ditto: “pussycat” in the hed, even though deeper a source says “truly awesome predator;” Guardian (UK) Alok Jha has it right in the hed “fearsome killer…with the bite of a moggy,” and what in tarnation is a moggy? (The Tracker thought it Britspeak for a Morgan automobile; Google says: domestic cats). Jha’s lede still, misleadingly, suggests it may not have been a fearsome killer; National Geographic Richard A. Lovett at least restricts the wimpiness to its biting, not its overall ferocity; Reuters Julie Steenhuysen gets it right in her lede saying wimpy bite or not, this was no pussycat; AP.

Grist for the Mill: UNSW Press Release; Smilodon video; full media kit.

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