Saber-toothed tiger and cat: more similar than you think

A study in which Sapienza took part shows morphological continuity between extinct species with long, fanged canines and their modern descendants. The research also explains the reasons for the acquisition and rapid disappearance of this feature. The results, published in the journal Current Biology, provide new insights into the evolution of some predator species

Saber teeth, the elongated upper canines characteristic of some of the fiercest predators that have ever existed, have fascinated generations of scientists and enthusiasts around the world.

The acquisition of this particular characteristic is common mainly to a few species, now all extinct, belonging to two groups: the felids (i.e. the family to which lions, tigers and domestic cats belong) and the nimravids, which have completely disappeared. Because they occur in organisms that are not closely related, saber-toothed tigers are considered a classic example of a phenomenon known as 'evolutionary convergence'. However, the progressive mechanism that allowed these different groups to acquire their elongated canines remains to be explained scientifically.

A groundbreaking study published in Current Biology and conducted by an international team of evolutionary biologists, including a researcher from Sapienza University, with the participation of the University of California - Berkeley and the University of Liège, investigated the evolutionary patterns behind the development of saber teeth to shed new light on this fascinating and popular aspect of palaeontology.

The team used advanced 3D scanners to collect cranio-mandibular morphological data from a wide range of current and extinct species using modern 3D scanners and analysed them using statistical tests. In this way, it was possible to reveal a morphological continuity between today's small felids and their saber-toothed ancestors, effectively disproving the hitherto universally held theory that there was a clear separation between the two species groups. 

“We described the morphology of 99 jaws and 91 skulls from different epochs and scattered all over the world, obtaining a clear map of the evolution of these animals", says Davide Tamagnini of the Charles Darwin Department of Biology and Biotechnology. "In particular, our research confirms that the acquisition of saber teeth was favourable in the short term because it conferred a great advantage in terms of predation, but in the long term it exposed species with such characteristics to greater extinction risks (due to shortage of large prey, impact of sudden environmental changes, etc.). This may explain why numerous different groups of saber-toothed animals appeared and were all characterised by a limited history. Finally", concludes Tamagnini, “our analyses clarified that the key to the acquisition of saber teeth lies in a particularly rapid evolutionary rate that defines the early stages of cranio-mandibular change in species”.

Some of the osteological material studied to understand the evolution of saber teeth is housed at Sapienza Museums, in particular the Museum of Zoology and the Museum of Comparative Anatomy ‘B. Grassi’. These collections have recently been included in an ambitious museum digitisation project, coordinated by Isabella Saggio (Spoke 7- National Biodiversity Future Centre), through photographs and digital 3D reconstructions. The aim is to increase the accessibility of the naturalistic collections, in order to enhance the impact of these themes on communication and to promote public participation in science.


Evolutionary patterns of cat-like carnivorans unveils drivers of the sabertoothed morphology - Chatar, N., Michaud, M., Tamagnini, D., Fischer, V. - Current Biology,


Further Information

Davide Tamagnini
Department of Biology and Biotechnology "Charles Darwin"

Thursday, 23 May 2024

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