Ice Age cats ate well… until they died out

 

Sabre-toothed cats and other Ice Age predators were well fed and flourishing just before they died out, according to new research.

The evidence, from a study of the animals' teeth, deepens the mystery surrounding the "megafaunal extinction" that wiped out legions of large beasts in North America.

Previously it was assumed that changing climate at the end of the Pleistocene era, combined with human activity, killed off the animals.

As prey species such as mammoths and bison vanished, it would have been increasingly difficult for large carnivores to find enough food, according to the theory.

But the new findings suggest that two leading predators, the sabre-toothed cat and American lion, were not going hungry at all in the years leading up to their demise.

If anything, the reverse was true. They appeared to have more meat than they needed.

Scientists used a highly accurate computerised technique to study 3D magnified images of tooth surfaces.

Fossil teeth of 15 American lions and 15 sabre-toothed cats that had been preserved in natural tar pits were examined.

The specimens dated from around 35,000 to 11,500 years ago - just before the megafaunal extinction.

Experts know that when food is scarce, carnivores try to avoid wasting it. They consume more of their kills and tend to crunch more bones - which leaves tell-tale marks on their teeth.

Chomping red meat produces small parallel scratches on the tooth surface, while bones add larger, deeper pits.

The research found no sign of greater consumption of carcasses as the big cats neared extinction. Instead, the analysis indicated that, for both species, the proportion of their kills the animals devoured actually declined.

Study leader Dr Larisa DeSantis, from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, US, said: "The net result of our study is to raise questions about the reigning hypothesis that 'tough times' during the late Pleistocene contributed to the gradual extinction of large carnivores.

"While we cannot determine the exact cause of their demise, it is unlikely that the extinction of these cats was a result of gradually declining prey (due either to changing climates or human competition) because their teeth tell us that these cats were not desperately consuming entire carcasses, as we had expected, and instead seemed to be living the good life during the late Pleistocene, at least up until the very end."

The findings are published today in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.

They contradict an earlier study of predator teeth recovered from the same tar pits at La Brea in California.

In 1993, a team led by Dr Blaire Van Valkenburgh, from the University of California in Los Angeles, found large numbers of broken teeth among the specimens. This was assumed to be evidence that the hungry carnivores were utilising carcasses more fully and damaging their teeth on their bones.

Dr DeSantis believes the teeth could just as easily have been broken in the course of taking down prey.

The American lions and sabre-toothed cats had far more broken canines than back teeth.

Species such as hyenas, which habitually crack bones, are as likely to break their chewing teeth as their canines, Dr DeSantis pointed out. On the other hand active hunters such as cheetahs, which avoid bones during feedings, were twice as likely to damage their canines in the course of making a kill.

The study showed that the wear pattern on the teeth of the American lion closely resembled that of the cheetah.

The sabre-toothed cat's wear pattern was more like that of the present-day African lion, which indulges in some bone crunching when it eats.

In addition, the large size of the extinct carnivores' prey might have contributed to broken teeth, say the scientists.

Sabre-toothed cats were about the size of modern African lions, while the extinct American lion was 25% larger.

The animals they hunted included mammoths, four-ton ground sloths and 3,500lb bison.

PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot