Smilodon (left) is the largest ancient cat species, and the tiger (right) is the largest modern cat species. The museum rendering of Smilodon is just a guess at what their fur coloration might have been, since no one really knows.
Comparing the largest ancient and modern cats
Saber-tooth tigers, also called saber-tooth cats, were actually five different families of mammals anciently, two of which were closely-related to cats. One of the other groups was in the cat family, Felidae, and they are the only ones that were true cats.
The subfamily of saber-tooth cats that were true cats is Machariodontinae (don’t worry, there won’t be a spelling test). And of these ancient cats, which were all extinct by about 9,000 years ago, there are more than 70 species known from fossils.
Of the saber-tooth cats in this subfamily, the largest known species was Smilodon populator. Below I compare this species with modern tigers, which are the largest cats alive today.
A wild Bengal tiger in Ranthambore National Park in India.
About modern tigers
The largest cat species on Earth, male tigers can weigh over 600 lbs (270 kg). The largest was of the Bengal subspecies, and weighed 858 lbs (389 kg). Female tigers rarely top 350 lbs (158 kg).
In the wild they are found in India, Southeast Asia, China, Southern Russia, and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They were once found in far greater numbers, ranging west to the Middle East and Turkey, throughout Central Asia, and on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali.
During the course of the twentieth century their range was reduced by 93% and their numbers also dropped by as much, and only a few thousand exist in the wild now. Three of nine subspecies have gone extinct, and currently the South China subspecies is one of the rarest animals on Earth, with very few remaining.
The most numerous of the subspecies is the Bengal tiger in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. There are at least 1,500 still alive in the wild, and they are also the largest in size of all subspecies. The largest Bengal tigers live in Northern India and in Nepal.
Smilodon populator fossil skeleton on display at the Museum of Natural Sciences of Valencia in Valencia, Spain.
About true saber-tooth cats and Smilodon
The saber-tooth cats of the Machariodontinae subfamily were true cats, although not all of the species had long maxillary canines. Each had “saber teeth” to an extent, although some much more so than others.
These cats originated in Africa probably 15 to 20 million years ago, and over a few million years spread through Europe and Asia. They then spread to the Americas by way of a land bridge that used to connect where the Bering Strait now exists, between Alaska and Russia.
The three known Smilodon species originated in North America and spread to South America. In the last few hundred thousand years of the Pleistocene two species existed, Smilodon fatalis and Smilodon populator. At the same time, some other saber-tooth cat species from other genera were found in the Americas.
The species we are interested in, Smilodon populator, lived only in South America, whereas Smilodon fatalis lived on both American continents. Our friend Smilodon is the largest cat species to ever live, weighing more than tigers on average. They disappeared between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Estimates for the size of Smilodon state that many individuals certainly outweighed the largest Bengal tigers, with large males reaching about 885 lbs (400 kg). Shoulder height was approximately four feet (120 cm).
An artists' depiction of Smilodon once again makes a guess as to its coloration. The tiger photo is from the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, New York.
Differences between Smilodon and Bengal tigers
Smilodon was more robustly built than modern tigers, with stronger arms. Their mouths opened twice as wide, and their tails were significantly shorter.
Smilodon’s famous saber teeth were not used to bring down prey. This was done with their powerful arms and claws, and when an animal was subdued, the razor sharp teeth, which were eleven inches (28 cm) long, were used to slash the throat to finish off their prey. Modern cats by comparison use their mouths to subdue and bring down prey.
Smilodon, despite being a true cat, is not very closely related to tigers and other modern cat species. They are classified in the same taxonomic family, but in different subfamilies. Smilodon was an amazing predator, and the saber-tooth cats were once found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
At the end of the Pleistocene Period, as the most recent Ice Age came to an end, many large animal species around the world, especially large mammals, went extinct, including Smilodon. This has been attributed primarily to major disruptions in ecosystems due to hunting by humans. The changes in climate likely contributed to the extinctions, which are most heavily concentrated around 10,000 to 11,700 years ago.