Sabre-toothed cats were still prowling through Europe 200,000 years later than previously thought, new analysis has found.
In a paper published in the journal Current Biology, a team led by Johanna Paijmans, of the Institute for Biochemistry and Biology, at Germany’s University of Potsdam, presents partial mitochondrial genomes for three sabre-toothed cats from the genus Homotherium (members of which were widespread across Eurasia and the Americas), and one from another sabre-toothed genus, Smilodon.
Among the Homotherium fossils was a jawbone that was found in a trawler net in the North Sea in 2000 and identified by shape two years later as belonging to a sabre-toothed cat.
The fossil was dated to 28,000 years before present. Doubts lingered about the identification of the genus – mainly because other Homotherium fossils were much, much older, suggesting that the big cats vanished perhaps 300,000 years ago.
By creating a partial genome reconstruction, Paijmans and her colleagues have confirmed the identification and the date of the jawbone, establishing that the extinction of sabre-toothed cats, at least in Europe, was much more recent than previously thought.
“When the first anatomically modern humans migrated to Europe, there may have been a sabre-toothed cat waiting for them,” Paijmans says.
The paper also established that the two sabre-tooth groupings – Homotherium and Smilodon – diverged about 18 million years ago. There was very little genetic diversity among the Homotherium fossils analysed, suggesting that they were all members of a single widespread species. (Smilodon diversity could not be estimated.)
Discussing the now confirmed age and identity of the sabre-toothed jawbone, the scientists compare the species to the extinct human relatives known as the Denisovans.
Both cases, they note, are striking examples “of the major gaps in our knowledge” regarding the evolutionary history of Eurasia.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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