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Saber-toothed cats were the lions of prehistoric South America

As South America became wetter at the end of the last ice age, the steppe sprouted more trees, which may have cramped the hunting style of the saber-toothed cat.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 21, 2016 at 10:31 AM

TUBINGEN, Germany, March 21 (UPI) -- Until now, researchers believed Smilodon populator -- popularly known as the saber-toothed tiger or saber-toothed cat -- looked and acted like a forest-dwelling cat, stalking the ancient jungles of South America. But new research suggests the nearly 900-pound cat hunted South America's open plains.

Researchers at the University of Tubingen in Germany analyzed collagen extracted from the bones of saber-toothed cats excavated from Argentina's Pampas region. Fossils included in the study belonged to cats living between 25,000 and 10,000 B.C.

Scientists compared the cats' collagen to collagen collected from a jaguar, Panthera onca, and a species of wild dog, Protocyon. The findings revealed the preferred environment and prey of the three species.

Researchers say that unlike the jaguar, Smilodon populator did not prefer dinner in the woods. Its preferred prey included Macrauchenia, a camel-like, steppe-dwelling ungulate, and two giant sloth species which, unlike their modern relatives, preferred to hang out on the ground.

While the jaguar preferred smaller woodland prey, the dog had an appetite and palate similar to the saber-toothed cat. The analysis suggests the saber-toothed tiger behaved similarly to African lions.

"It may be that these predators, too, hunted together in groups," lead researcher Herve Bocherens said in a news release.

Like most megafauna, Smilodon populator died off by the end of the last ice age. Researchers have long debated what caused the demise of these large animals -- humans or climate change?

The new findings may support the idea that climate change precipitated the species' extinction. As South America became wetter, the steppe sprouted more trees, which may have cramped the hunting style of the saber-toothed cat.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

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