Millions of Years ago, many cat-like animals walked the earth, some more massive and fierce than any alive today. The earliest fossil ancestors of the cat family come from the Eocene period, some 50 million years ago. These ancestors evolved into the species“ of large and small cats that are living today, such as the lion and the house cat. Another line of evolution produced the now extinct saber-toothed cats, so-called because the huge canine teeth in the upper jaw were like daggers or sabers, and the cats killed their prey by stabbing it with these weapon-like teeth. Some saber-toothed cats were large; others were small. The American species Smilodon, well-known from the La Brea tar pits 1n Calfornia, was a little larger than a modern tiger.
Stuck on You
In the Ice Age, a natural eruption of black, sticky tar at Rancho La Brea, now part of Los Angeles, California, trapped thousands of different animals, including 2,000 saber-toothed Smilodon. These carnivores probably got stuck when they rushed into the tar after prey that was trying to escape from them. ’
Thylacosmilus looked like a saber-toothed cat, but it was no relation to the cat family. Thylacosmilus was the marsupial (the young develop after the birth in their mother’s pouch) that lived in South America during the Pliocene period, about 7 million years ago.
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802—1873) sculpted the lions that ﬂank Admiral Lord Nelson’s column in London’s Trafalgar Square, to commemorate British victories in battle. During the last Ice Age, real lions roamed the freezing landscapes of Britain in search of prey like bison and wild horses. The bones of these extinct lions have been found right underneath the Landseer lions in the heart of modern London.
This was a large, saber-toothed cat that inhabited open grasslands. Like the lion of today, the extinct Smilodon lived in family groups and preyed on large herd animals like bison and mammoth. It did not become extinct until the end of the last e Age, about 10,000 years ago.
Mincis was a distant ancestor of the cat family. It looked like a marten but had longer legs. It probably lived in the tropical forests of the Eocene period, about 50 million years ago. Miacis has been found as a fossil in Germany.
Smilodon’s saber-teeth extended well below the lower jaw, so the animal could use them without opening its mouth wide. The teeth were used like daggers to stab prey. All the saber-tooths had somewhat weak lower jaws, but the muscles used to bring the head down could exert a powerful force, essential when stabbing huge, slow-moving animals like the mammoth.
Dinictis was about the same size as today’s serval, and like the serval was probably a grassland predator. Dinictis has been found as a fossil in South Dakota.
This was one of the earliest extinct cats. It lived in North America in the Oligocene period, about 35 million years ago. Hoplophoneus was only- distantly related to Smilodon but also had large canine teeth for stabbing its prey.
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