Was this the most extreme sabertooth ever?
The American Pleistocene genus Smilodon is probably the most famous sabertooth, and it certainly was the largest, and one of the most spectacular. It also was the last of its lineage, only becoming extinct after modern humans reached the Americas. But, was it the most extreme form of sabertooth ever to exist? Well, in terms of the anatomical adaptations for the sabertooth hunting and killing method, I think it wasn´t.
I would propose several candidates for the title of the most extreme sabertooth, including species of the genera Thylacosmilus (a metatherian), Eumilus (a nimravid) and Barbourofelis (a barbourofelid). Among these, Barbourofelis fricki, from the late Miocene of North America, combines large body size (although certainly smaller than Smilodon) with proportionally huge upper canines, together with a skull that has undergone a more radical transformation than that of any placental sabertooth, and body proportions that reflect enormous muscular power and the ability to wrestle down large prey and keep it completely immobilized while the predator executed its very specialized and precise killing bite.
Here you can see several preliminary sketches and the finished reconstruction of the head of Barbourolefis fricki. It took me several attempts to choose the angle of view and the lighting which best showed the unique porportions of this animal’s head
If you think that other sabertooths were more specialized you could be right at least in part, because the skull of Thylacosmilus, with its ever-growing sabers,was even more weird-looking, while Smilodon populator had the most massive sabres ever and would have taken the lergest prey of any sabertooth in the whole Cenozoic. But in terms of the total set of adaptations that it displayed, Barbourofelis fricki certainly pushed the envelope, and if we could see it in action we would witness the ultimate lesson in sabertooth hunting style. Frustratingly, we will have to rely on our studies of functional anatomy to have any idea of how these amazing predators dealt with their prey. But learning more and more about them is also a lot of fun!
If you want to know much more about these creatures, check my award-winning book “Sabertooth”!