The Saber-Toothed Cat

How might you answer the question, “where did saber-toothed cats live?” In the treeless tundra of modern Canada? In the jungles of South America? If you were to answer with either of these statements, you would be correct. Saber-toothed cats were not one species, or even a group of closely related species, but many different organisms that shared a similar appearance. One such species, the South-American Thylacosmilus, is believed to have been a marsupial! Without a doubt, the most famous creature to have earned the title of saber-toothed cat is Smilodon.

Smilodon had a diverse range of habitats, from subtropical to subarctic, but the largest collection of saber-toothed cat fossils, and those most referenced in science, were not recovered from an icy pit or a rainforest floor; they were recovered from Hancock Park in urban Los Angeles, California.

The La Brea Tar Pits were pivotal in the formation of Hancock Park when W.W. Orcutt, a petroleum geologist, noted the presence of prehistoric fossils in the natural asphalt pits on the Hancock Ranch in Los Angeles in 1901. Since then, hundreds of saber-toothed cats, as well as mammoths, dire wolves, ground sloths, and dozens of other mammal species from the Pleistocene Epoch have been recovered from the pits. The Smilodon specimens were so well preserved and so abundant that in 1973, the California state legislature adopted the Smilodon as the California State Fossil.

The specimen in the Natural History Gallery here at Discovery Park of America was cast from one of these very specimens and stands as a local access point to this incredibly piece of America’s paleontological heritage.

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