In the Shadow of the Sabertooths
There is a popular misconception that sees the sabertooths as older, primitive relatives of our modern big cats -even as their ancestors. But the fact is that both lineages share a common ancestor that lived more than 20 million years ago, and since then they have evolved independently. Actually, the feline cats have changed much less in the course of all those millions of years, and they resemble that common ancestor more closely, so, ironically, it is the sabertooths who became more specialized, and our felines that remained more “primitive”.
One striking snapshot of the evolution of the two cat lineages (sabertooths and felines) is provided by the exceptional sites of Cerro Batallones in Madrid. This complex of fossil sites of late Miocene age (about 9 million years ago) has yielded an amazing treasure of fossils of carnivores, including the best sample in the world of 2 species of sabertooth cat, Machairodus aphanistus and Promegantereon ogygia. Machairodus was the first sabertoothed felid to reach the size of a lion, and it had a range of prey animals to choose from, including horses, antelopes, jiraffids, rhinoceroses and maybe even young mastodons. Such variety of herbivores would offer suitable prey for a modern big cat such as a lion or tiger, and one wonders: where were the ancestors of our big cats in the late Miocene? Well, the answer is they were right there, sharing the same ecosystems, but they certainly were not competing with the sabertooth for prey… because none of those felines was larger than a lynx!
Yes, the feline cats lived in the shadow of their sabertoothed cousins for many millions of years just like mammals lived in the shadow of the dinosaurs. And we are finding there was more variety of them than we used to think. For years we assumed that all the fossils of small cats from Batallones belonged to Felis attica, a serval-sized species commonly found in the late Miocene of Eurasia. But when a team of paleontologists led by Manuel Salesa from the MNCN in Madrid set out to study those fossils in more depth, we found some surprises.
As it turned out, most of the small cat fossils from Batallones belonged to a different genus and species (a new one, by the way) , Styriofelis vallesiensis, which differs from Felis attica in retaining more teeth (a primitive feature) and being slightly smaller, and which would have been rather similar to a modern wildcat. During the same study, we took a close look at fossils of the common species “Felis attica” and we found that it differed so much from modern species of the genus Felis that it was impossible to keep it in the same genus, so we created the new genus Pristifelis for those Miocene cats. Now the interesting thing is that several postcranial fossils from Batallones are slightly larger than those of Styryofelis vallesiensis and indicate the simultaneous presence of Pristifelis at the site. This combination reminds me of the situation in the modern African savannah, where the african wild cat and the serval cat share the same ecosystem with the cheetah, the leopard and the lion. In the case of Batallones, the big cat niches were firmly held by the sabertoothed species, and the felines were restricted to the role of rodent and bird hunters, a situation that would remain that way for millions of years until the late Pliocene. By that time, some felines evolved into full jaguar-sized beasts and for the first time they challenged the sabertooth supremacy. What led to such dramatic developments? Well, that is a different story…
Here is an illustration showing the small feline cat from Batallones, Styriofelis vallesiensis, to the same scale with the sabertooth Machairodus aphanistus. Even I was surprised by the size contrast when I put these two together!
And for those more technically-minded here is a link to read a PDF of our scientific paper about the Batallones small cats: