Two new extinct sabretooth cats found in South Africa

Four sabretooth cats, including two new species, have been identified from fossilised remains found in South Africa. The finds expand what is known about the fearsome hunters on the African continent between five and seven million years ago.

All of the fossils were found in Langebaanweg, north of Cape Town in South Africa.

The findings, described in a paper published in iScience, allow palaeontologists to, for the first time, establish a family tree of the ancient sabretooths that once roamed the region.

Map of africa with red green blue spots and cats around it
Distribution of extinct sabretooth cats in Africa. Credit: iScience Jiangzuo et al. (CC BY-SA).

Sabre-toothed cats – such as the famous Homotherium (North America, Europe, Asia and Africa) Smilodon (North and South America) – were widespread around much of the world until the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago when they became extinct.

Known for their scimitar-like long canine teeth, sabretooth cats were powerful hunters. They are well known on the African continent, with many species already identified.

Long sabre teeth from cats curved sizes
An array of sabertooth teeth from Dinofelis, Lokotunjailurus, and Adeilosmilus. Credit: iScience Jiangzuo et al.

Among the Langebaanweg fossils are two previously known species, Adeilosmilus aff. kabir and Yoshi obscura.

One of the new species, Dinofelis werdelini, is the earliest definitively defined species of Dinofelis – a genus common across Africa, China, Europe and North America. Dinofelis werdelini would have been similar in size to a large jaguar and lived 5.2 million years ago during the early Pliocene period.

The researchers expected to find a new Dinofelis species at Langebaanweg. The other new species was not expected.

Lokotunjailurus chinsamyae becomes the first of its genus found outside Kenya and Chad. The find suggests Lokotunjailurus may have roamed all over Africa 5–7 million years ago. Lokotunjailurus chinsamyae was only slightly larger than Dinofelis werdelini and also lived 5.2 million years ago.

“The known material of sabertooths from Langebaanweg was relatively poor, and the importance of these sabretoothed cats has not been properly recognized,” says senior author Dr Alberto Valenciano, a palaeontologist at Complutense University in Spain. “Our phylogenetic analysis is the first one to take Langebaanweg species into consideration.”

Valenciano’s team classified the physical traits of each sabretooth species – such as jaw and skull shape, and tooth structure – to construct a family tree of sabretooth cats from the region.

Family tree of sabretooth cats
A sabretooth cat family tree. Credit: iScience Jiangzuo et al.

The evolutionary connections between the ancient sabretooth species points to increasing global temperatures and changes in the environment during the Pliocene.

Sabretooths from the Machairodontini family are larger and more adapted to grassland environments. Metailurine sabretooths, on the other hand, tend to be smaller and better suited to covered habitat.

The presence of species from both families in Langebaanweg suggests that the region contained both open grassland and forested habitats 5.2 million years ago.

Young man with beard holds large sabretooth cat skull in museum
Alberto Valenciano holding a cranium of the sabretooth cat Smilodon in the American Museum of Natural History. Credit: Alberto Valenciano.

Valenciano and his colleagues also note the similarities between the types of sabretooth found in Langebaanweg and those unearthed in China’s Yuanmou County. In fact, they suggest that Yuanmou’s Longchuansmilus sabretooth may be closely related to Lokotunjailurus.

“This suggests that the ancient environment of the two regions was similar or that there was a potential migration route between the Langebaanweg and Yuanmou,” says first author Qigao Jiangzuo, a professor at Peking University.

As Africa dried, the forested regions disappeared. This same evolutionary pressure is believed to have provided the impulse for the emergence of the first hominins.

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