Cats and Hyenas

By | September 9, 2016

Prehistoric cats were just as ferocious as their modern cousins and sometimes a lot bigger. Like modern cats, they had powerful, muscular bodies and sharp teeth for slashing flesh. Cats and hyenas share a common ancestor, and early species show features of both types of animal. The group includes some of the most efficient killers on the planet.

FAMILY FACT FILE

Key features
■ Sharp teeth
■ Powerful jaws and neck muscles
■ Strong forelimbs
■ Clawed feet

When
The first catlike mammals lived about 35 million years ago, in the Paleogene Period. They evolved into the family of modern cats that include lions and jaguars.

Smilodon (SMILE-oh-don)

smilodon


When: 5 million to 10,000 years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: N. America and S. America

Habitat: Plains

Length: 6 ft (1.8 m)

Diet: Meat

Smilodon was one of more than 100 species of saber-toothed cat that scientists have discovered. It was a heavy, muscular animal and a predator to be reckoned with, able to wrestle victims to the ground before tearing open their throats. Despite their size, Smilodon’s teeth weren’t strong enough to bite through the back of the neck, as a lion’s can, and would break if they hit bone. Smilodon hunted a variety of prey, including bears, horses, and young mammoths. Fossils have been found together, suggesting it lived and hunted in packs as lions do.

SABER TOOTH

smilodon-skull

Smilodon’s skull

Smilodon’s canine teeth were more than 10 in (25 cm) long including the root. Like sabers (short swords), they were curved and had extremely sharp edges.

Dinofelis (DIE-no-FEE-liss)

dinofelis


When: 5–1 million years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: Africa, Europe, Asia, N. America

Habitat: Woodlands

Length: 5 ft (2 m)

Diet: Meat

Dinofelis (“terrible cat”) was about the same size as modern forest-dwelling cats, such as leopards and jaguars. Like these cats, it may even have had a spotted or striped coat that helped it to remain hidden in the undergrowth while it kept a lookout for prey. Dinofelis stalked its prey in the forest, hiding behind trees before ambushing victims. Its prominent front teeth were shorter and less flattened than those of other saber-toothed cats but were just as deadly. In Africa, its bones have been found near the sites of early humans, which suggests that it may have preyed on them, too.

Cave hyena (cave high-EE-na)

cave-hyena


When: 2 million–10,000 years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: Europe, Asia

Habitat: Grassland

Length: 5 ft (2 m)

Diet: Meat

A hunter and scavenger, the cave hyena fed on wild horses, woolly rhinos, deer, and humans in ice age Europe and Asia. Recent tests of DNA from fossils show it was the same species as the modern African spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), but larger and with longer legs.

Ictitherium (ICK-tee-theeri-um)

ictitherium


When: 13–5 million years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: Europe, Asia, Africa

Habitat: Plains

Length: 4 ft (1.2 m)

Diet: Insects

Ictitherium was an early member of the hyena family. However, with its long body and short legs, it looked more like a civet (a tree-climbing, nocturnal mammal) than a modern hyena. It was probably an insect-eater, but may have also fed on small mammals and lizards.

Machairodus (mah-CARE-oh-duss)

machairodus


When: 12 million–125,000 years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: N. America, Africa, Europe, Asia

Habitat: Woodlands, grassland

Length: 5 ft (2 m)

Diet: Meat

Large and ferocious, Machairodus was a sabertoothed cat, although its canines were shaped more like a knife blade than those of Smilodon. Like most early cats, it was an ambush predator, since its legs were too short to sustain a long chase. Species that evolved later and lived on the plains had longer front limbs, which shows that they were traveling farther to hunt and were running after their prey.

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