DECEIVINGLY FUZZY: THE FELINE FACE OF DINOFELIS PIVETEAUI
The Transvaal Caves in South Africa, popularly known as “The Cradle of Humankind”, are justly famous as the source of some of the most important hominin fossils in existence, but they have also yielded a few remarkable fossils of sabretooths. One of these is the holotype skull of Dinofelis piveteaui. This beautiful fossil, found at the cave of Kromdraai, was described as early as 1955 by Rosalie Ewer, and she already noted its marked sabretooth features: the dentition included a pair of flattened, flesh-piercing uper canines, an impressive row of enlarged incisors, and huge, blade-like carnassials for processing meat with enormous efficiency. Coupled with a specialized mastoid zone for insertion of powerful neck muscles, these adaptations allowed D. piveteaui to dispatch large prey with a proper sabretooth killing bite, causing massive blood loss and a quick death.
Several years ago I had the privilege to study that magnificent fossil at the Transvaal Museum, and my first impression was contradictory: all the sabre-tooth adaptations were there to be clearly seen, but the nice preservation of the Kromdraai skull shows something else: in spite of these “machairodontine” adpatations, the general morphology of the skull was remarkably feline: The muzzle was short (due in large part to the short diastemata, or empty spaces between the canines and premolar teeth), the cranium was broad across the zygomatic arches, the orbits were large and forward-looking and the dorsal outline of the skull was gently convex.
All in all, the geometry of this animal’s skull resembled that of a jaguar more than that of a “classic” sabretooth like Megantereon or Homotherium, with their long muzzles, narrow faces and straight dorsal outlines.Also, and in spite of their flattened shape, the upper canines were so short that barely the very tips, if anything, would show when the cat closed its mouth (as in the case of the clouded leopard, which has longer canines than any other modern cat and still they are mostly hidden by the upper lips).
One consequence of this conservative, feline geometry of the skull, is that the life appearance of the head of D. piveteaui would also be quite cat-like, especially when seen from the front. When relaxed, its warm and fuzzy look would barely let us imagine what a killing machine we had in front of us.
If we could see the animal baring its teeth during a fight with a rival cat, or with a bloody muzzle while dispatching its victim, we would get a more balanced view of the so-called false sabretooth. But that is a different story…