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The Tricky Business of Being a Pleistocene Predator

How injuries on fossil specimens tell the story of hunting styles

At the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, a realistic saber-toothed cat puppet stands in front of the wall of dire wolf skulls.

Eleven thousand years ago, Los Angeles was home to several impressive Ice Age predators, among them, saber-toothed cats (Smilodon fatalis) and the dire wolves (Canis dirus). These large mammals hunted local herbivores like bison, camels, and horses. But their hunting styles were very different.

Wolves hunted in packs; the cats often worked alone. Wolves chased down their prey over long distances while cats relied on the element of surprise and ambushed their prey.

Pits 61 and 67 at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. These two pits originally started out as two separate excavations, but as they reached greater depths it became clear that they merged into a single deposit that was at least 13,000 years old. Hundreds of skulls were recovered from this deposit, and though bones from saber-toothed cats and dire wolves were most common, there are also many fossils of camels, bison, deer, horse, and ground sloths.

The hunting strategies left their mark, resulting in different injuries to these two long extinct predators.

Dr. Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a professor at UCLA and research associate at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, and doctoral candidates Caitlin Brown and Mairin Balisi looked to the fossil record from pits 61 and 67, which contain many dire wolves and saber-toothed cats dating back 13,000 years. Together with research associate and former NHMLA collections manager Christopher Shaw, the team analyzed bones from 342 saber-toothed cats and 371 dire wolves. Of the 35,000 bones considered, 2,000 showed signs of injuries such as healed broken bones, muscle strains, and even arthritis.

The wolves showed signs of wear and tear more often on their legs and feet, their ligaments and tendons pushed to the limit while pursuing their prey through Pleistocene Los Angeles like prehistoric marathon runners. But still, only 2.8% of wolves showed these injuries. The saber-toothed cats, however, fared worse those many thousands of years ago. All the pouncing and wrestling large prey to the ground could take a toll on the saber-toothed cats’ shoulders and spine. In all, 4.3% of the saber-toothed fossils showed signs of these injuries from excessive muscle strain.

Have you always wanted to see what a live saber-toothed cat would look like? In the Ice Age Encounters show at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, a life-sized saber-toothed cat puppet will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time!

“The most exciting thing about the study was verifying that behaviors can be recorded through injury with enough resolution to distinguish predatory styles,” said Brown. “The two predators were injured in very different ways.”

The good news for both carnivores was a general lack of head injuries. Among the everyday dangers of surviving during the Ice Age, it seems relatively few involved blows to the head.


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