Knowing the great predators that still inhabit our world, it is easy to imagine the fear and fascination that our ancestors would feel when facing a giant cat with fangs like knives protruding from its snout. Let’s take a look at some of these imposing prehistoric felines.
In 2010, an exploration of a remote region of the Tibetan plateau found fossil remains of this species. In the northern part of the Himalayas, a team of paleontologists found the oldest felid fossil to date , almost 6 million years old.
This prehistoric cat would have features similar to the current snow leopard, although with a smaller size if we stick to the remains found. Therefore, we could be facing a species that was around 120 centimeters long (not counting its long tail) and about 30 or 40 kg in weight.
“This finding suggests that big cats have a deeper evolutionary origin than previously suspected,” said Dr. Jack Tseng of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In addition, the fossil confirms what the researchers already suspected about this type of panterine: its origin would be in Asia and not in Africa.
Possibly the most famous feline in prehistory. The popular acquis takes the Smilodon as the saber tooth par excellence, a term that should not lead us to the mistake of taking it as a species, since there are numerous species of mammals that are part of the name “saber teeth”. It is nothing more than the simple way of calling these cats that carried immense upper fangs.
In addition to its long canines, the fame of this animal can come from the many studies on it. Many Smilodon remains have been found in the tar pits at Rancho La Brea, California . From this genus we can differentiate several species such as Smilodon gracilis , Smilodon fatali or Smilodon populator , which is estimated to have weighed between 300 and 400 kg, with heights of 1.25 meters and 2.6 meters in length.
They spread throughout the American continent for 2.5 million years and became extinct about 10,000 years ago, so they coexisted with humans. Precisely humans are attributed the cause of its extinction due to excessive hunting. Although other specialists point to its disappearance for being too specialized in hunting large prey. When the American megafauna ceased to dwell on Earth, Smilodon did not adapt to a new mode of feeding as other felids with more flexible habits did.
Its teeth, up to a foot long, protruded from its jaw and could have fine serrations on their edges. With such sabers, the Smilodon carried out accurate stabbings to finish off the mega-herbivores that were part of its diet, such as mammoths, bison or deer, as soon as possible.
The remains found of this species, such as those that appeared in Germany in 1985, help us to shape another of the great cats of prehistory. It is estimated that the Panthera spelaea, better known as the cave lion, could measure more than two meters in length without counting its tail and weigh about 350 kg.
It populated Europe and Asia from 370 thousand years ago to 10,000 years ago. The end of its existence is also linked to the global mass extinction of the Quaternary , with which most of the world’s megafauna disappeared.
Of special interest are the cave paintings that represent this felid on the walls of the Chauvet cave, in France. We can verify their similarities with current African lions, just as these paintings seem to support the theory that these prehistoric lions hunted the largest herbivores of their time in packs. The paintings also tell us that they were probably hunted by humans and that they could have been part of rituals.
It is another genus among the saber-toothed . The Machairodus are divided into several species that populated Europe, Asia, Africa and North America from 11.6 million years ago to 200 thousand years ago. This prehistoric cat could measure 1.3 meters in height and exceed 400 kg, as is the case of the Machairodus kabir species.
Its legs were short, so researchers surmise that it would hunt in quick ambushes , as they would not be able to sustain a long chase. Instead, it featured a long, strong neck on a slender body with a short tail in the style of modern lynxes. Its canines offered it the lethal tool for hunting , and were also less prone to breakage than the fangs of the Smilodon.
It is common to call the species Panthera atrox , possibly the largest felid that ever lived, an American lion.
It lived during the Pleistocene in present-day North America and Patagonia. You can imagine it as a current African lion, but without mane around the neck and 25% larger. It could reach a meter and a half in height, with up to 3.5 meters in length and 500 kg of ferocious beast. Its size and strength made it the dominant predator of glacial America, above wolves, giant bears of the time, and saber-tooths themselves.
The studied remains conclude that the American lion had the largest brain, so pack hunting tactics are assumed to capture all kinds of prey: horses, bison, mammoths.
As always in science, we are at the expense of new fossils changing this panorama. What does not seem to change is our fascination with the most agile, elegant and ferocious feline predators that have evolved from prehistory to the present day.
Figueirido, B. et al. 2018. Distinct Predatory Behaviors in Scimitar- and Dirk-Toothed Sabertooth Cats. Current Biology, 28, 20. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.08.012Stanton, D. et al. 2020. Early Pleistocene origin and extensive intra-species diversity of the extinct cave lion. Scientific Reports 10, 12621. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-69474-1Tseng, Z. J. et al. 2014. Himalayan fossils of the oldest known pantherine establish ancient origin of big cats. Proc. R. Soc. B. 281: 20132686. 20132686. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2686Turner, A. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives. Columbia University Press.