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Saber-toothed cats were fierce and family-oriented

A freshly detailed picture shows Smilodon helping the injured and the young

THE BADDEST CAT On countless occasions over thousands of years, predator and prey alike — such as saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths — became mired in the tar at what is now Rancho La Brea in southern California, leaving loads of fossils for researchers to study.


The adolescent saber-toothed cat on a summertime hunt realized too late that she had made a terrible miscalculation. Already the size of a modern-day tiger, with huge canine teeth, she had crept across grassy terrain to ambush a giant ground sloth bellowing in distress. Ready to pounce, the cat’s front paw sank into sticky ground. Pressing down with her other three paws to free herself, then struggling in what has been called “tar pit aerobics,” she became irrevocably mired alongside her prey.

Scenarios much like this played out repeatedly over at least the last 35,000 years at California’s Rancho La Brea tar pits. Entrapped herbivores, such as the sloth, attracted scavengers and predators — including dire wolves, vultures and saber-toothed Smilodon cats — to what looked like an easy meal. Eventually the animals would disappear into the muck, until paleontologists plucked their fossils from the ground in huge numbers over the last century.

Five million or so fossils have been found at the site. But “it’s not like there was this orgy of death going on,” says Christopher Shaw, a paleontologist and former collections manager at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles. He calculates that such an entrapment scenario, dooming 10 or so large mammals and birds, would have needed to occur only once per decade over 35,000 years to account for that bounty of fossils. At La Brea, the collection of Smilodon fatalis fossils alone includes more than 166,000 bones, from an estimated 3,000 of the ill-fated prehistoric cats. Famed for their fearsome canines, which grew up to 18 centimeters long, S. fatalis weighed as much as 280 kilograms, bigger than most of today’s largest lions and tigers.

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