Sabre-toothed cat once called ancient Alberta home

Published: October 28, 2019

Shutterstock/Daniel Eskridge

Rewind time 11,000 years ago to the Late Pleistocene in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and you’d be faced with a landscape similar to the grasslands of the prairies today. But the animals roaming the area were quite different: the large herbivores of the time included mammoths, giant ground sloths, and giant camels. Now we can add one more prehistoric creature to the list. Researchers from the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) have shown that Smilodon fatalis, better known as the sabre-toothed cat, also called Alberta home during the last Ice Age. This is the first time a Smilodon fatalis fossil has been found in Canada, and the fossil shows how museum collections can provide valuable information about the natural world.

Technically, the Smilodon fossil was found twice: in the field, and then in storage at the ROM. Ashley Reynolds, a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum, was working on a different project when she came across a bag in the ROM’s fossil collections with a specimen labelled Smilodon fatalis. The bag had been donated to the ROM in 2014, and featured fossils collected in the late 1960s from around Medicine Hat, Alberta. The label stopped Reynolds in her tracks. She recalls thinking, “Oh! This is from Alberta. I didn’t think we had any in Alberta.”

Smilodon fatalis was not just unknown in Alberta’s fossil record: this species hadn’t been found anywhere in Canada. Reynolds set out to confirm if the fossil bone truly was from a Smilodon.

Reynolds says confirming a fossil’s identity is “sort of a tedious process.” The fossil is a metacarpal bone. Humans have the same type of bone: it can be found on the pinky side of the palm of the hand. Reynolds had to find comparative examples of metacarpals from every type of animal the fossil could possibly be from. “We had to rule out that it was a bear, another species of cat, or even a really big dog.” Through the process of elimination, Reynolds was able to whittle down the list of animals the bone could belong to until she arrived at the most plausible answer: Smilodon fatalis.

Reynolds says that in terms of weight, Smilodon fatalis was similar to a very large lion, but had short, stocky limbs. The most striking feature was its massive canine teeth—hence the latin fatalis in its name, “deadly.” Squash a banana flat, and you’re looking at the same size and shape of the canines that extended from Smilodon’s mouth. The teeth were serrated on both the front and back edges, so they would be “like giant steak knives sticking out of their mouth,” says Reynolds. 

Because of their flattened shape, the canines were quite fragile and could be easily broken by the movement of Smildon’s prey thrashing around. So it when it came to catching dinner, Smilodon “would be relying more on their big, beefy forelimbs,” says Reynolds. “Once they have the prey down, subdued, and pinned to the ground, that’s when they would use the big canines.” 

Reynolds says that this discovery highlights the importance of providing researchers with the funding and resources to visit museums and dig through their artifacts. You never know what prehistoric creature will turn up on a shelf in a museum’s collection storage. “Without having these collections for researchers like to come and poke around in, I think studies like this show that there are things we would never know, or take a lot longer to know,” says Reynolds. 

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