An Ultimate Guide to Smilodon: The Knife Tooth

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Name MeaningKnife toothHeight1 meter (3.3 feet)
PronunciationSMY-lo-donLength1.5 to 2.5 meters (5 to 8 feet) 
EraCenozoic – Quaternary PeriodWeight160 to 280 kilograms (350 to 620 pounds)
ClassificationMammalia, Carnivora, & FelidaeLocationNorth America and South America

Smilodon Pictures

3D image of Smilodon
3D image of Smilodon | Vac1 via iStock

The Smilodon

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Smilodon Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Smilodon Concept

Throughout Earth’s history, numerous cats have gone by the name “saber-toothed cats.” 

In fact, at least 100 species of saber-toothed cats have been discovered so far, all known for their long dagger-like canines protruding menacingly out of their mouths beyond their lower jaws. 

Arguably the most popular and best-known of them all is the Smilodon

This is a genus of large mammalian carnivores that lived in the Americas and was one of the top predators on the continent during the Pleistocene Epoch from 2.5 million years ago till about 10,000 years ago. 

Although it is sometimes called saber-toothed lion or saber-toothed tiger because of its superficial resemblance with these modern cats, the Smilodon is not closely related to any present-day canids. 

Smilodon was larger than present-day lions and had a more robust and muscular build.

It also hunted prey differently, using its dagger-like canine for stabbing prey instead of grabbing and holding them down like modern cats too. 

Smilodon's combination of dagger like canines and wide gaping bite could easily hold and finish any prey
Smilodon’s combination of dagger like canines and wide gaping bite could easily hold and finish any prey | Mauricio Antón via Wikipedia CC BY 3.0 nl

The saber-toothed cat was adapted to hunting large prey like the bison, mammoths, camels, and other large prey that were part of the North American and South American megafauna. 

The Smilodon is one of the best-known animals from the Pleistocene Epoch. 

Thousands of skeletons belonging to this predator have been found preserved, most especially in the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits of California.

The first fossil of the Smilodon was discovered in the 1830s by Danish naturalist Peter Wilhelm Lund, who also named the genus. 

Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Plush Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

The generic name translates as “double-edged knife,” an obvious reference to the Smilodon’s dagger-like canines. 

Many more fossils of this top predator were discovered in the second half of the 19th century. 

The species has been extensively studied to understand their evolutionary relationship and interactions with other animals within their ecosystem. 

In this article, we’ll explain some of the most interesting findings about this massive carnivore that ruled the plains of the Americas several thousand years ago. 

Physical Characteristics

Smilodon was a robust and heavily built cat, similar in form to modern-day lions and tigers. 

This superficial similarity explains why it is commonly referred to as the saber-toothed tiger. 

But Smilodon was slightly larger than some of these big cats and also had a more robust and muscular build. 

Smilodon restoration featuring its stocky build
Smilodon restoration featuring its stocky build | Charles R. Knight via Wikipedia Public Domain

The lumbar region, which formed most of the animal’s torso, was reduced compared to that of present-day cats. 

Smilodon also had broad limbs with relatively short feet, giving it a stocky build. 

The forelimbs were slightly longer than the hindlimbs, so it appeared slightly crouched, similar to the posture of hyenas, but not as pronounced. 

Three Smilodon species have been identified so far, each with a slightly different size. 

The smallest species in the genus is Smilodon gracilis

It was about the same size as a jaguar, with an average weight of about 55 to 100 kilograms (120 to 220 pounds).

S. fatalis was the second biggest species, and it was about the same size as modern lions. 

Smilodon fatalis life-restoration
Smilodon fatalis life-restoration | Dantheman9758 via Wikipedia CC BY 3.0

It stood at a height of one meter (39 inches) at the shoulders and was about 1.75 meters (69 inches) long.  

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Smilodon Size Comparison Chart
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Smilodon Size Comparison Chart

The estimated size of this cat ranged between 160 and 280 kilograms (350 to 620 pounds). 

S. fatalis had a muscular build and was more robust compared to modern lions. 

The largest species in the genus is S. populator

It had an average mass of about 220 kilograms (490 pounds) but may have clocked over 400 kilograms (880 pounds). 

This would make it one of the largest known felids to have ever lived, similar in size to a Siberian tiger. 

It is worth noting that some individuals may have exceeded this size, with a possible maximum mass of about 470 kilograms (1,040 pounds)

The most distinctive feature of Smilodon was its impressive pair of elongated upper canine teeth, which were exceptionally long and curved.

Smilodon skull with its two elongated upper canines
Smilodon skull with its two elongated upper canines | Bone Clones via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

These canines could grow up to 28 centimeters (11 inches) in length. 

They had serrated edges and were built to deliver devastating stabbing bites to prey. 

Smilodon is often reconstructed with either plain colored coats like a lion or with spotted patterns similar to that of tigers and leopards. 

S. populator restored with plain coat
S. populator restored with plain coat | DBCLS via Wikipedia CC BY 4.0

Since no fossil of this carnivore has been found with soft tissue preserved, it’s hard to tell which of these depictions would have been accurate. 

It also isn’t clear if they had manes like male lions did since this is an unusual feature that’s almost impossible to predict from fossils.

Habitat and Distribution

The Smilodon is the most recent of the saber-toothed cats. 

It lived in the Americas during the Pleistocene Epoch and was alive as recently as 10,000 years ago. 

The geographic range of Smilodon was quite extensive. 

Fossils of this saber-toothed cat have been found in both North And South America. 

In North America, the geographic range of this cat extended as far up north as Alaska. 

Smilodon gracilis and Smilidon fatalis were native to North America. 

S. gracilis migrated into North America during the middle Pleistocene Epoch and probably evolved into S. populator

This range of this South American Smilodon was largely restricted to the eastern part of the continent. 

S. fatalis eventually migrated into South America as a way but was largely restricted to the western part of the continent, possibly separated from the other species by the Andes mountains.

Smilodon lived in a wide range of habitats on both continents. 

They were most commonly found in closed habitats such as forests or bushes. 

But they also lived in open woodlands, grasslands, and savannas across the two continents. 

These environments were home to large herbivores such as mammoths, bison, horses, and deer, which were all potential prey for Smilodon

Life restoration of fauna during the Pleistocene epoch
Life restoration of fauna during the Pleistocene epoch | Mauricio Antón via Wikipedia CC BY 2.5

The Pleistocene Epoch, when this big cat was alive, was an unstable period in terms of its climate. 

Much of North America and South America experienced alternating periods of glaciation (also known as ice ages) and interglacial periods where conditions were warmer. 

These climatic fluctuations led to the expansion and contraction of ice sheets and also influenced the distribution of forests and grasslands. 

During glacial periods, the landscape was typically characterized by vast grasslands and open habitats. 

As the planet grew warmer during interglacial periods, the grasslands gave way to forests, offering different habitats for various animal species, including the Smilodon and its preferred prey species. 

Behavior and Diet

Smilodon was a powerful and agile predator. 

Smilodon most likely have pounced and then suffocated its prey to death as shown above
Smilodon most likely have pounced and then suffocated its prey to death as shown above | Disneysaurus via Jurassic Park Fanon Wiki

As expected of an apex predator, this big cat had a well-developed sense of sight and hearing. 

It was also capable of coordinating its limbs very efficiently. 

Although it was heavily built, the saber-toothed cat had muscular limbs that would have allowed it to move swiftly. 

A few prehistoric saber-toothed cats, like the Megantereon (the likely ancestor of the Smilodon), are known for their scansorial habit.

Megantereon model for reference
Megantereon model for reference | Ghedoghedo via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

But given its weight and robust build, the Smilodon was probably not as adapted to climbing as its ancestors. 

This means it was completely terrestrial and must have been adapted to walking and running. 

The Smilodon did have fairly long heel bones, which suggests it was probably capable of jumping. 

Smilodon was a hypercarnivore and most likely an apex predator in its ecosystem. 

It primarily hunted large herbivores such as mammoths, bison, horses, and other megaherbivores that were around during the Pleistocene Epoch. 

The forearms of this big cat had well-developed flexor and extensor muscles equipped for pulling down and holding large prey securely. 

Smilodon was an ambush predator, which means it didn’t rely on pursuing prey for long distances like some modern cats. 

The long dagger-like canines of the Smilodon were fragile and probably not strong enough to bite into bone. 

S. populator canine tooth; the tip points to the right
S. populator canine tooth; the tip points to the right | Fernando da Rosa via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

This means killing prey with slow suffocating bites like modern cats would have been out of the question for this predator. 

Hunting probably involved ambushing prey by hiding in dense vegetation, then pinning them with strong forelimbs in time to deliver a devastating bite to the throat or neck. 

There is an ongoing debate about Smilodon’s social behavior 

Some evidence suggests that this saber-toothed cat may have been more solitary, like many modern-day big cats.  

The Smilodon’s brain was relatively small compared to modern cats, which tend to exhibit complex social behavior. 

They were also large enough to take down big prey on their own. 

However, some experts also think that they might have been somewhat social and could have lived in small family groups. 

Fossil evidence, such as the discovery of fossils of multiple individuals nearby, has led to the hypothesis that they may have exhibited some level of social behavior.

One of the most notable instances of this is the discovery of numerous Smilodon fossils in the famous asphalt seeps of La Brea in Los Angeles and Talara Tar Seeps in Peru. 

S. fatalis fighting dire wolves over a Columbian mammoth carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits
S. fatalis fighting dire wolves over a Columbian mammoth carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits | Robert Bruce Horsfall via Wikipedia Public Domain

At least 166,000 Smilodon fossils have been recovered from these tar pits.

These are remains of individuals drawn to the pit at different times by the distress calls of large herbivores caught in the natural traps. 

Attracted by the possibility of preying on the distressed animals, many of these predators ended up getting trapped themselves. 

The sheer abundance of Smilodon fossils in these tar pits suggests they probably lived in social groups that hunted and scavenged together. 

Life Cycle

The reproductive behavior and life cycle of the Smilodon was probably similar to that of modern cats. 

However, specific details about their mating display, gestation periods, and litter sizes remain unknown due to the scarcity of fossil evidence related to their reproduction.

Their specific mating behavior depends on whether they were solitary or formed pride or packs like present-day big cats. 

Smilodon life cycle
Smilodon life cycle | Image via Reddit

After mating, females gave birth to live young and likely cared for their offspring during their early stages of life. 

Young Smilodon individuals were probably kept in dens or caves and didn’t join their parents for hunts. 

They depended on food brought back to them by their parents after the hunt. 

Smilodon juveniles were born with a robust and muscular build similar to that of adults, but their saber tooth was probably missing at birth. 

The adult saber teeth would have started developing after about a year or 19 months of growth. 

For another 11 months, the Smilodon’s mouth would have both baby teeth and adult canine teeth side by 

During this time, the muscles needed to support their powerful bites would also develop. 

These muscles would be fully developed at one-and-a-half years old, a few months earlier than that of modern lions. 

A fully grown Smilodon
A fully grown Smilodon | Disneysaurus via Dinopedia

The young Smilodon would eventually lose its infant teeth at about two years of age, allowing the canines to grow rapidly at the rate of seven millimeters (0.3 inches) per month over the next year. 

Smilodon juveniles attained full maturity at around three years of age, eventually joining the hunt like adults.

Evolution and History

Smilodon belonged to the family Felidae, which includes all modern cats, as well as many extinct cat species. 

Within the Felidae family, Smilodon was part of the subfamily Machairodontinae, commonly known as the saber-toothed cats. 

This subfamily is characterized by their elongated and highly specialized upper canines, which distinguished them from other felids.

Montage on species of the subfamily Machairodontinae
Montage on species of the subfamily Machairodontinae | George Miquilena via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

The group is further divided into three tribes, namely, Metailurini (false saber-tooths), Homotherini (scimitar-toothed cats), and Smilodontini

The Smilodon was a member of this last group. 

The earliest felids evolved in Europe during the Oligocene Epoch, but the first saber-toothed cats didn’t evolve till the Miocene Epoch. 

The genus Pseudaelurus is one of the first known members of this group. 

Restoration of Pseudaelurus
Restoration of Pseudaelurus | Jay Matternes via Wikipedia Közkincs

The long canines of the saber-toothed cats were an adaptation for killing the large animals in their ecosystem. 

Over time, these cats developed a wider gape and robust limbs for immobilizing prey. 

They also sacrificed a high bite force for effective slashing teeth that could inflict fatal gaping wounds on prey and kill them in minutes. 

The ancestors of the Smilodon diverged from the main lineage of saber-toothed cats about 18 million years ago. 

The Megantereon is often regarded as the direct ancestor of the Smilodon

S. gracilis, which was the earliest species in the Smilodon genus, evolved from them about 2.5 million years ago. 

Partial skull of S. gracilis, the earliest species in the genus
Partial skull of S. gracilis, the earliest species in the genus | Augustios Paleo via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

They migrated to South America about one million years ago and evolved into the S. populator.

 S. fatalis evolved about 1.6 million years ago. 

These different Smilodon species showed minor differences in their overall size and body proportions. 

Interactions With Other Species

The forest and savannah grasslands of North America supported numerous large herbivores during the Pleistocene Epoch. 

This includes horses, bison, antelope, deer, camels, mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths. 

Smilodon with its recent kill, a juvenile mammoth
Smilodon with its recent kill, a juvenile mammoth | CoreyFord via GettyImages

These animals were much bigger than present-day versions and were top on the list of prey hunted by prehistoric big cats like the Smilodon

As one of the apex predators in the Americas, the Smilodon was adapted to hunting and killing these large prey species. 

Given the size of these herbivores, the Smilodon would have found it easier to target young, weak, or wounded individuals, but were also capable of taking down healthy adults too. 

If the speculation that they lived and hunted in packs is accurate, Smilodon packs may have been capable of carrying out coordinated attacks to take down these large prey. 

A herd of Columbian Mammoths vs a Pride of Smilodons
A herd of Columbian Mammoths vs a Pride of Smilodons | Image via Reddit

Smilodon was not just a hunter; it was also a scavenger, feeding on carcasses of these large herbivores left behind by other predators or from natural deaths. 

But scavenging like this would mean contending with other large scavengers in their ecosystem, such as vultures and hyenas. 

But the main animals the Smilodon would have had to worry about were the other big cats in its ecosystem. 

This includes other large carnivores like the dire wolves, saber-toothed cats like Homotherium and Xenosmilus, the short-faced bear, and the American lion

A male Smilodon fatalis dispatches an American Lion with two fangs to the back of its head
A male Smilodon fatalis dispatches an American Lion with two fangs to the back of its head | Image via Reddit

These were the top predators in North America that would have competed with the North American Smilodon species for similar-sized prey. 

For many years, S. populator didn’t have to deal with these large predators in its ecosystem but still contended with a few of them. 

The American interchange, which occurred later in the Pleistocene, introduced new species into the South American ecosystem. 

Although this brought in new prey for the S. populator, it also allowed the introduction of some North American predators into its ecosystem too.

Ancient humans arrived in the Americas around the same period as the Smilodon’s extinction. 

Experts think they may have interacted in some ways. 

The arrival of humans and their activities may have contributed to the decline and extinction of the Smilodon

An artistic representation of early human activities
An artistic representation of early human activities | clu via iStock

Cultural Significance

Smilodon is one of the most recognizable prehistoric carnivorous mammals ever discovered, thanks to its distinctive appearance. 

It is also one of the most notable ice-age animals. 

Smilodon during the ice age
Smilodon during the ice age | CoreyFord via iStock

The Smilodon is considered an iconic symbol of the Ice Age period, along with other large Pleistocene species like woolly mammoths and cave bears. 

Studying fossils of these ice-age animals has helped scientists to reconstruct the Pleistocene ecosystem to understand the environmental and ecological changes going on at the time. 

Numerous Smilodon fossils have been recovered so far, some of them as recent as 10,000 years ago. 

Extinct animals that lived until recently like this are of major interest to scientists seeking to understand the dynamics of past extinction events. 

The lessons learned from studying these species are considered very helpful to current conservation efforts.

The Smilodon’s status as the apex predator of the last ice age, its fearsome image as a notorious carnivore, and its menacing saber teeth have made it a popular and recognizable prehistoric animal to the general public.

This big cat has appeared in several movies, TV shows, video games, and books that explore prehistoric worlds or feature ancient creatures. 

The most notable of these is the appearance of the Smilodon in movies in the Ice Age franchise. 

Diego the saber-toothed cat as seen on the movie Ice Age
Diego the saber-toothed cat as seen on the movie Ice Age | Ngh93 via Ice Age Wiki

A saber-toothed cat, Diego, is one of the main characters that has been featured in all five of the Ice Age movies. 

Smilodon has also been featured in documentaries and museum exhibits, and various educational programs. 


The Smilodon is a genus of extinct felids that lived in North and South America during the Pleistocene Epoch. 

It is one of the best-known saber-toothed cats, popular for its long saber-like canines. 

Smilodon is also one of the best-known prehistoric mammals of the last ice age. 

It was a hypercarnivore that hunted large prey like mammoths, giant horses, and camels in its ecosystem. 

Smilodon was an ambush predator particularly adept at pouncing on prey and delivering a fatal bite to the neck or threat. 

Smilodon was one of the most successful predators in recent history. 

Millions of these big cats were once widespread in the forests and Savannah landscapes of North and South America.

However, the species eventually went extinct about 10,000 years ago. 

The decline of one of the earth’s most prolific predators was caused by a combination of factors, including climate change and competition with better-adapted predators in their ecosystem. 


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