Scientists mapped the DNA of a sabre-tooth tiger for the first time


The iconic sabre toothed cat was a deadly long distance hunter, according to new research. (Credits: University of Copenhagen / SWNS)

The iconic sabre toothed cat was a deadly long distance hunter, according to new research.

It was the apex predator of the Ice Age – and stands alongside the woolly mammoth as the most famous.

Now the fanged creature’s DNA has been mapped for the first time – shedding fresh light on its lifestyle.

It came from a scimitar-toothed cat – so-called because its huge, razor sharp front teeth were shaped like a curved sword.

Co-first author Dr Michael Westbury said: ‘Their genetic make-up hints towards scimitar-toothed cats being highly skilled hunters.

‘They likely had very good daytime vision and displayed complex social behaviours.

‘They had genetic adaptations for strong bones and cardiovascular and respiratory systems – meaning they were well suited for endurance running.

‘Based on this, we think they hunted in a pack until their prey reached exhaustion with an endurance-based hunting-style during the daylight hours.’

The analysis by the University of Copenhagen team found the legendary killers were even more terrifying than previously imagined.

They would have brought down deer, buffalo, antelopes, camels, bison and ancient horses in groups – ripping their flesh to bits.

They even fed on mammoths and enormous elephant-like mastodons that had huge tusks.

Hoplophoneus primaevus skull and upper cervical vertebrae (Wikipedia)

The study also found it is very distantly related to all modern cats – diverging around 22.5 million years ago.

In comparison, humans and gibbons split between 15 and 20 million years ago.

Co-first author Dr Ross Barnett said: ‘This was an extremely successful family of cats. They were present on five continents and roamed the earth for millions of years before going extinct.

‘The current geological period is the first time in 40 million years that earth has lacked sabre-tooth predators. We just missed them.’

They have fascinated scientists for over 200 years. The first fossil was dug up in the early 19th century. Their bones have since been unearthed worldwide.

The study published in Current Biology reveals the genes that were highly selected upon and vital in their evolution.

It was based on DNA extracted from a scimitar-toothed cat that lived at least 47,500 years ago.

The animal’s bones were recovered from Ice Age permafrost sediments near Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

They were so old they could not be dated using conventional radio-carbon techniques.

The researchers used a variety of modern genomic sequencing methods to draw up the entire genome of the fossil.

They used complex comparative analyses to modern living cat species such as lions and tigers.

This showed the sabre-toothed cat was very genetically diverse to today’s cat family.

Dr Westbury said: ‘We know genetic diversity correlates to how many of a given species that exists.

‘Based on this, our best guess is that there were a lot of these big cats around. This also makes perfect sense given that their fossils have been found on every single continent except Australia and Antarctica.’

The researchers emphasise their study is an example of how different fields of research can benefit from each other.

They hope to see similar bioinformatics methods used on many other extinct animals in the future.

Co-author Professor Tom Gilbert said: ‘Modern advancements within medicine and genetic research means sequencing methods are a lot better for us now than they were just a few years ago.

‘On top of that, we know what specific genes are associated with in animals and humans from medical research.

‘This means we can infer a lot of things about extinct animals as we have done here. You could say that the fast progression of medical research has made this study possible.’

Sabre-toothed cats could weigh almost a ton and grow to more than ten feet long – equivalent to a male polar bear.

They existed from the Eocene through the Pleistocene Epoch – 56 million to 11,700 years ago. They had no predators.





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