Sabretooth tiger on the Tibetan plateau lived cooperatively

Chinese scientists have been studying the fossilised remains of an injured paw of an early race of sabertooth tigers which lived between 8.7 and 9.8 million years ago. These were early “versions” of the sabertooth tiger which became extinct about 11,000 years ago. The sabertooth tiger at one stage lived side-by-side with humans.

Reconstruction of two Amphimachairodus hezhengensis defending their prey (Hezhengia bohlini) from two Dinocrocuta gigantea. Artwork by Oscar Sanisidro.
Reconstruction of two Amphimachairodus hezhengensis defending their prey (Hezhengia bohlini) from two Dinocrocuta gigantea. Artwork by Oscar Sanisidro.

They decided that the paw showed signs of injury. The cat had suffered two serious fractures in the third and fourth carpal bones. The bones had become fused during healing. This would have restricted their movement and therefore their hunting capacity.

The scientists concluded that normally this kind of injury would probably have led to the cat’s death through starvation, being unable to hunt successfully. However, as the fractures had healed it suggested that the animal was supported by the group enabling them to survive longer.

In addition, the animal in question went on to develop a chronic condition “suggesting that the individual continued to survive after injury for quite a long time”.

They added that, “The healed fractures support the existence of partner care, pointing to social behaviour.”

The paw in question was found in the Linxia Basin in the north-eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau.

The cat in question belonged to an amphimachairodus, an extinct genus of cat with upper canine teeth longer than the modern cats but not as long as those that we typically see in depictions of sabertooth tigers.

The researchers from institutions including Peking University in China also show that around that time this species of cat operated in more open surroundings which were typical of the Tibetan plateau.

A skull belonging to this genus of cat showed that they had long muzzles and their eyes were located further back in their skulls. They argue that this would have given them a wider field of vision to look for prey in open plains.

The study concluded that “In open environments, prey are more conspicuous and less precise targeting by stereo vision becomes less necessary [and that the evolutionary changes] point to an adaption to the open environment and social behaviour.”

At that time, the Tibetan Plateau became more arid over millions of years. The land was pushed up by the collision of the Indian subcontinent with the continent of Eurasia.

The evolutionary changes also took place because of “competition from abundant large carnivores in the area”.

In general cats are solitary creatures. To live cooperatively might have been rare 8 million years ago.

My thanks to The Times newspaper for the primary source of this article plus the study itself:

Origin of adaptations to open environments and social behaviour in sabretoothed cats from the northeastern border of the Tibetan Plateau.

There are several ways to spell ‘sabretooth’. Alternatives: sabretooth, sabertoothed, saber-tooth, saber-toothed, sabre-tooth and sabre-toothed. ‘Saber’ is the American version of ‘sabre’.

Saber Tooth Tiger

History of the big cats – a summary

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