DON’T MESS WITH AMPHIMACHAIRODUS: SABERTOOTH KING OF THE TUROLIAN
Some eight million years ago, during the late Miocene, much of Eurasia underwent dramatic environmental changes, with a reduction in the previous expanse of forests and a predominance of open woodlands and savannah-like landscapes. This part of the Miocene period is known in Europe as the Turolian.
The Turolian plains were inhabited by herds of three toed-horses and many kinds of antelopes, which together with a diversity of giraffids, rhinos, and proboscideans, would turn much of the old continent, to our eyes, into a gigantic Serengeti of sorts. That vast array of herbivores was not free of predation, and the lion’s share corresponded to one of the most impressive sabertooth genera ever: Amphimachairodus.
Probably originating in Asia, Amphimachairodus spread like fire across the continents, becoming the dominant large carnivore in Europe and North America and eventually entering Africa and reaching as far South as the Cape province. Nothing could stand in its way. What was the key to such success? A close relative of Machairodus, Amphimachairodus took the adaptations of its older cousin one step further, not only by developing longer, more flattened and more coarsely serrated upper canines, but also by refining the adaptations of its skull, mandible and neck for a super-efficient kind of killing bite. Fully as large as a lion, Amphimachairodus not only had access to very big prey, but it also was dominant over any other predator in its habitat.
A less well known side of the success of Amphimachairodus was diversity. Subtle differences between species are not always easy to tell from the fossil record, but it is obvious that there existed more than one species of this sabertooh genus during the late Miocene. The type species, A. giganteus, was widespread in Eurasia, but others have been desccribed in China, North America and Africa. And with diversity come different adaptations and even behaviours. Populations of A. giganteus living in open environments, in direct competition with clans of the large hyena Adcrocuta, would probably develop some sort of social behaviour in order to defend territory, females, cubs, and kills. But other species within the genus may have led solitary lives in more wooded environments, much like the modern tiger does. Just let us bear in mind that the genus Panthera today includes a diversity of adaptations which we would hardly be able to tell from their bones alone. Lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, each one has its unique solutions to cope with the challenges of its ecological niche, and so would the sabertooths.
The impressive teeth of Amphimachirodus would give additional intensity to any facial expression. The interplay of the complex facial muscles, for which all cats are notorious, would allow a precise transmission of mood to conspecifics, and why not, to rival species such as the hyaenas. The expression shown in this illustration clearly says “don´t mess with me”!
Fortunately, the fossil record provides more than just skulls to gauge at the adaptations of Amphimachairodus, as we shall see elsewhere.