Estimating the Size of Smilodon (Sabre-Tooth Cats)

Estimating the Size of Sabre-Tooth Cats

With the Roland Emmerich directed film 10,000 B.C. proving popular with UK cinema audiences over the Easter holidays, staff at Everything Dinosaur have seen a resurgence in queries and questions related to prehistoric mammals.

Woolly mammoths and Sabre-Tooth cats tend to be the most popular of all the now extinct mega fauna of the Cenozoic, the fact that these animals play a prominent role in this new film will no doubt add to their popularity.  Certainly both animals are very enigmatic, although the size of these prehistoric beasts tends to be taken a little bit out of proportion by the Hollywood special effects teams.

Take the fearsome Sabre-Tooth cat for example, the best known and most researched species would be S. fatalis and the two sub-species from North America.  The superbly preserved remains removed from the La Brea tar pits have provided a huge amount of fossil evidence.  This fierce predator was not the largest of the Smilodon species.  Smilodon populator of South America, is believed to have been a little larger, perhaps exceeding 1.2 metres at the shoulder.

The impression re-produced below gives a rough idea of the scale of  the largest Smilodon species when compared against a human (not that we would recommend anyone attempting to get too close to one of these creatures)!

A Sketch Illustrating the Size of the large Smilodon (S. populator) compared to a Person


Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The largest Smilodon would have been about the size of a male African lion (Panthero leo), but up to 300 kilogrammes in weight, making them much more heavy set than the largest of the big cats around today.

When it comes to the “top dogs” in the cat family the Panthero genus (lions) may have the last laugh, several extinct sub-species of Panthero leo may have been even larger than the biggest of the Smilodons.  It seems that those “big cats” such as S. populator, belonging to the sub-family of Machairodontinae, had some pretty strong competition from other members of the Felidae. Take for example the American lion (Panthero leo atrox), a contemporary of Smilodon fatalis, this fearsome beast is estimated to have been about the same height and weight of the largest of the Smilodons but less compact, perhaps reaching lengths in excess of 2.5 metres.

Although the American lion is known from the La Brea fossil deposits, relatively few remains have been found when compared to other carnivores such as the Dire wolves (C. dirus) and Smilodon fatalis. Perhaps the lack of fossils indicates that there were relatively fewer lions within the ecosystems that the fossil record represents, or maybe the American lion had a different hunting strategy and preferred habitat that took it away from La Brea.  Perhaps the American lion was just a little too smart to get caught in the tar pits.

Ironically the largest carnivore from the La Brea deposits is not a member of the Felidae at all.  The Short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), was the largest carnivorous animal around the area of La Brea towards the end of the Pleistocene.  A massive animal 1.5 metres high at the shoulder, capable of raising itself to a height of 3 metres or more and weighing perhaps as much as 800 kilogrammes, if a member of the Felidae stumbled across one of these bears, it would be better off getting out of its way.  The Short-faced bear is reputed to have been the largest bear to have ever existed.  Compared to modern brown bears its limbs were much longer and it had a short, broad muzzle (hence its name).  The jaws were extremely powerful and this animal would have had an awesome bite.

Little is known about the behaviour and habits of the Short-faced bear.  Chemical analysis of fossilised bones indicate a predominately carnivorous diet, but whether this bear was an active hunter of a scavenger is unknown.  It was certainly capable of chasing off both Smilodon fatalis and the American Lion in order to take over a recent kill.

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6 Responses to “Estimating the Size of Smilodon (Sabre-Tooth Cats)”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Check my link. I have estimated the possible weight ranges for the Smilodon populator, Smilodon fatalis and American lion and given comparable lion and tiger weights. Average weights are around 260-270 kg (S. populator), 210-225 kg (S. fatalis) and 235-240 kg (P. atrox). For reference avg weight of a P. leo is 185-200 kg and P. tigirs is 210-220 kg.

  2. Smart guy says:

    Hi Mike

    Smilodon is not the largest saber tooth cat. Rexasmilus is the biggest. Ask a paleontologist.

    Thanks for your info,Mike!

  3. Brian says:

    Smilodon Fatalis was exceptionally stock in morphology in its fronal regions, with more diminitive rear quarters. This cat was certainly not the largest in dimensions, but was the most stocky for its size. I would say the largest Smilodon Fatalis may have reached 750 lbs, but still only reaching a head and body length of 5ft 9 in. There was not a cat on earth that had stronger forelimbs than Smilodon had. Smilodon’s elongated canine teeth were more vulnerable to fracture than those of modern living felids, making it imperative for them to immobilize prey quickly with their forelimbs when making a kill. As a result, Smilodon had very heavily muscled forelimbs which greatly exceeded those of modern felids. This cat used more of a wrestler style takedown method of prey than what modern cats used.
    Smilodon differed from extant felids in its greater ability to subdue prey using the forelimbs. This enhanced forelimb strength was designed to minimize the struggles of prey in order to protect the elongate canines from fracture and position the sabers for a quick stabbing like kill, most likely in the side of the neck. In order for this to be done, Smilodon had to have been very stocky in morphology up front compared to modern living big cats.

  4. Emma says:

    What animals today are the nearest relatives to the Smilodon?

    • Mike says:

      The Smilodon genus is a member of the machairodontid sub-family of the Cat family (Felidae), the ancestors of the Machairodontidae share a common ancestor with today’s, extant cats dating from approximately 30 mya (Oligocene), but Smilodon is not closely related to any living type of cat.

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