SABERTOOTHS EATING FROM CARCASSES: HOW DID THEY DO IT?
This might seem like a trivial question, but it is not. Just a few years ago, some scientists were so puzzled by the differences between the skulls of sabertooth cats and those of their modern relatives, that they questioned even their most elementary activities. Looking at the sabertooths’ enormous upper canines, some experts thought that such teeth would “get in the way” of any food items that the cat would attempt to bite, unlike in modern big cats which, they thought, can easily open their mouths wide enough to get a big clearance between canine tips for large meat pieces to pass. As a solution, they proposed that the external mouth opening of sabertooths would be much longer than in modern cats, reaching very far back and thus allowing the animal to acquire food through the side of its mouth. Incidentally, this hypothesis resulted in some really ugly reconstructions being produced. But, was such a solution really neccesary?
One thing that hypothesis made clear was the fact that its authors had never obseerved a modern big cat eating from a carcass. A domestic cat eating from its dish does get food into its mouth more or less frontally, but a lion eating from a carcass bites directly with the side of its mouth, cutting skin and flesh with its carnassials. Alternatively it may bite meat off the carcass with its incisors, but in either case, claearance of canine tips is not neccesary, and it does not indeed happen because the gapes used during feeding are usually so small that, even with the modern cat’s relatively short canines, there is little or no actual separation. And on top of that simple evidence there is another: in terms of food acquisition, it would be useless for the sabertooths to have longer mouth openings, because even if the lips receeded far behind their position in modern cats, then it would be the masseter muscle (whose position we know well thanks to the shape of the attachment areas on the skull and mandible) that would get in the way of the desired food item!
Conclusion: sabertooth cats could eat perfectly well from carcasses with a mouth opening essentially similar to that of modern cats. But I always prefer visual proof rather than, or on top of, theoretical one. So, in order to reconstruct the sabertooth Megantereon eating from its prey, I used my computer 3D model of the skull as a basis to trace the soft tissue of the cat as it applies its carnassial bite to its prey’s ribcage.
I used my own video footage of a wild lion eating a wildebeest in Masai Mara as a basis to establish the posture of the sabertooth relative to the carcass, and made sure that the morphology of the sabertooth skull was compatible with this activity, which it evidently was. Incidentally, the video shows that while the lion was eating, at no time was the gape of its jaws large enough to allow more than a few milimeters’ clearance between its canine tips. The old theory about sabertooth eating methods needs not disturb my sleep any more. I really like it when the pieces fit so nicely!
Here you can see the lion that inspired my reconstruction, at the moment when the gape of its jaws is greatest. Notice that there is only a few milimeters’ clearance between canine tips -not precisely leaving much room for food items to cross.
To learn much more about how the sabertooths’ anatomical “machinery” worked, read chapter 4 of my book “Sabertooth”.
And to see some revealing video footage of sabertooths and modern cats (including the lion that served as a basis for this reconstruction), get the complete video “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life!