During the Ice Age, a saber-toothed tiger, Smilodon populator, roamed open, dry landscapes of South America, much like modern day lions in the African savanna. Interested to learn more about what was then South America's biggest cat, researchers examined the bones of saber-toothed cats from 25,000-10,000 B.C. Argentina.
"Up to now, paleontologists assumed that a predator weighing up to 400 kilograms and with bone structure similar to that of a forest-dwelling cat would have hunted in woodlands," explained Professor Hervé Bocherens, one of the study researchers from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
If saber-toothed cats, with canines up to 30 centimeters long, were to hunt in woodlands, it would make it easier for them to find hiding places from which they could attack their prey.
However, Bocherens' study suggests the animals primarily hunted a camel-like, steppe-dwelling ungulate known to scientists as Macrauchenia, and two species of giant sloth - Megatherium and Lestodon - which, unlike their surviving relatives, lived on the ground and weighed several tons.
Furthermore, researchers found that bones of several individual saber-toothed tigers were found together and contained similar isotopes, suggesting they were pack animals like modern African lions.
"It may be that these predators, too, hunted together in groups," Bocherens added.
For their study, researchers compared collagen samples from the bones of various Ice Age predators - including the saber-toothed cat, the jaguar (Panthera onca) and a species of wild dog (Protocyon) - with those of their likely prey. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes found in the collagen samples ultimately revealed what kind of environment the animals lived in.
Specifically, the saber-toothed cat evolved in North America and spread to South America when a land bridge between the two continents emerged some three million years ago. However, much like most of Earth's megafauna, the saber-toothed cat died out at the end of the Ice Age. It is believed that a damper climate would have ultimately led to increased forestation, which would have reduced the animals' hunting grounds, causing them to die out.
Their findings were recently published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.