TRUE SURVIVORS: NOTHING FALSE ABOUT THE “FALSE SABRETOOTHS”
I find it a bit annoying when any kind of animals are given the name “false-something”. It is as if such animals were somehow inferior or secondary to the “true” or “original” ones. Such an unfair treatment has been given to a group of sabretooth cats often called “false sabretooths”, and more properly known as the metailurins (technically a tribe within the felid subfamily machairodontinae). Among the metailurins, the genus Dinofelis was the latest to evolve, and they are most often referred to with that offending common name.
But there is nothing false about Dinofelis. As far as we know, these animals, like all metailurins, were true members of the subfamily Machairodontinae -that is, they were proper sabretooth cats. Back in the late Miocene, when no member of the feline subfamily had as yet grown any larger than a lynx, metailurins had reached full cougar size, and they had also evolved the flattened upper canines and enlarged carnassial teeth that are the hallmarks of machairodonts. Over the millions of years they gave rise to Dinofelis, which grew to full jaguar size, and the last species, called Dinofelis piveteaui, developed remarkably flattened sabres, huge carnassials, a set of protruding, impressive incisors, and a specialized mastoid area in the skull for the insertion of powerful neck muscles that aided in the specialized type of killing bite shared by all sabretooths.
In Eurasia, Dinofelis was the dominant big cat in the early Pliocene, when the climate was warm and humid and huge forests covered much of the continent, but the more open environments of the late Pliocene onwards gave the advantage to more specialized sabretooth cats: Megantereon and Homotherium.
In Africa, however, Dinofelis managed not only to stand its ground in the face of the other sabretooth cats, it actually thrived and evolved into a diversity of species. In fact, Dinofelis appears to have survived in that continent until a later date than the other machairodontines.
One of the key advantages of Dinofelis was the fact that, being less specialized than Homotherium or Megantereon, it was more flexible and better able to cope with changes in environmental conditions and prey availability. Even the relatively specialized Dinofelis piveteaui was a “jack of all trades” compared to its more extreme neighbours. It was larger than Megantereon and thus more powerful, but at the same time it retained better climbing capabilities than Homotherium. It could retreat into forests and survive on smaller prey, because its relatively short upper canines were less prone to breakage when hitting bone than in the case of the “classic” sabretooths.
So, rather than a “false sabretooth” what we see in Dinofelis is a true survivor.
Here we see Dinofelis piveteaui walking casually in a savannah envoronment, under the careful monitoring of a few horses. But, judging from its body proportions, this animal would be equally at home in the gallery woodlands and even in relatively dense forests.
There were other species of Dinofelis which evolved in a somewhat different direction, developing less “sabretoothed” dentitions than other metailurins and actually resembling our pantherine cats to a remarkable degree. We will look at those fascinating animals in upcoming posts.
If you want to know more about the metailurins, their diversity, and how they fit in the world of sabretooths, get my book, “Sabertooth”!