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.