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Monday, May 03, 2010

LINDSAY SELBY: Sabre-toothed cats

There seems to have been little interest in sabre-toothed cats sightings. Considering that sabre-toothed creatures only died out about 10,000 years ago and therefore there could be an ancestor around that was the result of interbreeding between cats as the last remnants of the sabre-toothed fought to survive, it seems strange that this big cat is virtually ignored by cryptozoology. There is very little mention of it, even by those who research big cats.

These cats were powerful hunters with large canine teeth that protruded out of the mouth, presumably for ripping prey apart or perhaps to get a grip on a prey that could not be broken if the teeth sank well in. The name 'sabre-tooth' comes from these teeth.

Reports of sabre-toothed cats have come from Africa, South America and even Europe.

Some of these modern reports describe sabre-toothed cats as being aquatic, in that they lurk in water to seize prey or live in hidden dens with underground entrances. They may of course be mixing up the cat with something such as a crocodile, stories do get distorted over time as the Chinese Whispers go on. Some of the stories/ accounts of sightings are below:

In 1940 there was an account of the Mexican Ruffed Cat by zoologist Ivan Sanderson. He obtained a large, tough cat skin from local people. The skin was about 6 feet (2 metres) from nose-tip with a short 1.5 feet (45 cm) tail. (Bear in mind pelts can stretch or shrink depending on how they are dried). The flanks and upper limbs had a series of wavy stripes in alternate light and dark shades of brown. The lower limbs were very dark brown, almost black, as was the tail. The cat also had a large ruff that started just behind the shoulders and encircled the neck and covered the ears from above and behind. A second skin of a smaller specimen was obtained but found to be in poor condition, but had sharper stripes. They were stored with other skins in Sanderson's base, but the base got flooded and the skins lost or ruined. Several candidates have been put forward including the extinct Samilodon (sabre-tooth tiger). Sabre-toothed animals have been depicted by indigenous Indians in their art work. However, this does not mean they have been seen recently but could simply be the stories of them are still alive and passed on through the generations.

In 1966 a report of a sabre-toothed cat came from South America by naturalist Peter Matthiessen. While in Paraguay Matthiessen was told by a seaman named Picquet about the existence of a mysterious cat:

"[He] described a rare striped cat not quite so large as a jaguar and very timid, which is possessed of two very large protruding teeth : this animal, he said, occurs in the mountain jungles of Colombia and Ecuador, and he has glimpsed it once himself." (Matthiessen 1966: 32, 33).

(N.B. Science Illustrée of September 1998 reports an observation by a French sailor, François Piquet, of a sabre-toothed cat in Paraguay in 1984 coming out of a cavern. It may be the same story as above but the date was mixed up)

In 1975 a 'mutant jaguar' was shot and killed in Paraguay. Upon being examined by zoologist Juan Acavar, he described it as having a foot (30cms) long sabre-teeth. Acavar felt that the animal was in fact a Smilodon, which supposedly died out over 10,000 years ago. The story goes that fearing the report would frighten the public and attract ridicule he decided on the mutant jaguar story. However, nothing more has been heard of the carcass.

(N.B. Cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans wrote that sabre-toothed tigers like Smilodon may be involved in such sightings, but it's more likely that the Thylacosmilidae, extinct sabre-toothed marsupials indigenous to South America, are the real culprits.)

In 1975 in Chad, Africa, Christian Le Noel was leading a game hunt from Derby near the river Ouandja 25km from Tirongoulou on the Chad-Sudan border when he heard a howling from a cave like nothing he had heard before. His tracker refused to go any further, saying that it was the sabre-tooth. The people of Temki, Hadjeray, in southwest Chad call the sabre-toothed tiger the "hadjel." The Zagaoua people of the region describe the creature as being as tall as a lion, with red fur and white strips, tail-less, and possessing a pair of large fangs/teeth projecting from its mouth. Wounds have been found on hippopotami that could have been inflicted by the teeth of a sabre-toothed tiger. Christian Le Noel witnessed a hippo that died of strange wounds that could have been made by a cat with large upper canine teeth.

In the UK there are stories about Hackney Marsh. There are tales of the Hackney Marsh Big Cat, which is thought to be a sabre-toothed tiger. Witnesses have described it as four feet tall with very long canine teeth.

So could there be a remnant of the sabre-toothed cat still around or even a hybrid, the result of interbreeding? Anything is possible. I just wonder why no one seems to have pursued the research for their existence, which is more likely than a living dinosaur in Africa or South America. If anyone has any thoughts please post a comment.

1998 Le félin aux dents de sabre. Science Illustrée, n° 9 : 62 (septembre).
Le Noel ,Christian 1999 On Target : History and Hunting In Central Africa Trophy Room Books; Limited edition
Matthiessen, Peter 1966 The Cloud Forest Pyramid Books New York.


Dale Drinnon said...

In both Africa and South America at least there seem to be confusions of alleged Sabertoothed cats with very large otters, often called Water Tigers and such. The otters would be the origin for the long-tailed reports, Sabertoothed cats had short tails. Interestingly, the reports also insist that the Sabertoothed cats that hang around watery ambush-places have enormously outsized feet, but which leave ordinary cat pads in their tracks.

Heuvelmans was wrong about the Sabertoothed marsupials in South America, Smilodons replaced them and survived until postglacial times there. I have seen a photograph of a historical Peruvian stone-carving which is likely a Smilodon, and it has a short tail like a lynx. That could be very similar to Sanderson's ruffed cat. No colouration pattern is represented on the stone figurine.
Some of the better historical representations of Sabertooths in art come from China. Reports truly are worldwide but they are extremely uncommon.

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

As far as I am aware, biomechanical testing on the teeth of big cats indicates that if they ever hit bone, they would be likely to shatter. It is therefore hypothesised that sabre toothed cats (the adaptation evolved twice, in unrelated cat linages) were specialist big game hunters and lived in social groupings. Their attack method seems to have been mob-attacking large prey in woodland, and subduing such large animals by weight of numbers, one cat ending the fight by severing major blood vessels in the neck of the prey animal.

This explains the need for a social structure; the prey would need to be kept still for such a bit to work.

Since the reported cats don't seem to be social to any degree, I think that we're dealing not with a Smilodon but with a smaller species with less well-developed canine teeth, and a more generalistic attack strategy, but one which is still woodland-based. Sabre-toothed cats were never particularly swift cats; they were always extremely powerfully-build ambush predators, hence extreme timidity and a reputation for ferocity.

Neil A said...

Lindsay, please could you tell me more about the Hackney Marshes 'legend' ? I've covered lots of mystery animals in this area but never heard of a sabre-toothed cat!!

Dr Karl Shuker said...

My first book, Mystery Cats of the World (Robert Hale: London, 1989), contains details of many different putative sabre-tooths from Africa and South America, plus evidence for late-surviving scimitar cats in Europe. There are additional details in my forthcoming, second book on mysterious and mythological cats.

Tabitca said...

forgot to say. thanks for all the comments :-)

Tabitca said...

Hi Neil.I wrote the blog ages ago so can't remember where I read it but I found this ref on the web:

Hackney Marsh - This is said to be the home of the Hackney Marsh Big Cat which is thought to be a sabre-toothed tiger. Witnesses have described it as four feet tall with very long teeth. http://www.squidoo.com/Britains-killer-cats
It appears on the web in a few places.
If I remember anything else I will post it.I am not so well at the moment so not quite on top of things.
Will look forward to the book Karl.