Cat Big 3

Mod­el of a sabre-toothed cat, Sterk­fontein Caves exhi­bi­tion. Pho­to cour­tesy Flow­comm

Mod­ern day cats vary from the cute domes­tic vari­ety that lounges around the house, to the gigan­tic tigers that roam Siberia. In the days of our hominid ances­tors, the vari­ety was just as diverse.

Mil­lions of years ago, the sabre-toothed cats of the genus Dinofe­lis (the ter­ri­ble cat”), roamed areas in the Cra­dle of Humankind like Bolt’s Farm and Swartkrans near the Sterk­fontein Caves, north west of Johannesburg. 

What were the dynam­ics between hominids and these large cats? How did the two inter­act with each oth­er? Sci­en­tists have been search­ing for the answer. 

Did Dinofe­lis prey on hominids?

The idea of sabre-toothed cats as hominid preda­tors con­tin­ues to be explored, but it is like­ly they were among sev­er­al crea­tures hunt­ing our ear­ly ances­tors. These hominid ances­tors includ­ed species like Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus and their cousins, Paran­thro­pus robus­tus.

Palaeon­tol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Bob Brain did exten­sive research at Swartkrans where the hominid species Homo ergaster and Paran­thro­pus robus­tus lived and where Dinofe­lis remains have also been found.

In his book, The Hunters or the Hunt­ed? An Intro­duc­tion to African Cave Taphon­o­my (1981), Brain hypoth­e­sis­es that ear­ly humans were the prey of var­i­ous preda­tors includ­ing sabre-toothed cats, and that Dinofe­lis was a spe­cial­ist pri­mate killer”, select­ing hominids and baboons as prey.

Brain sug­gests hominids were vul­ner­a­ble as they lived in open grass­land, and would have sought shel­ter in cave entrances. This is where sabre-toothed cats like Dinofe­lis would attack them, drag­ging them deep­er into the caves to devour them.

Dinofe­lis den­ti­tion was much like a cheetah’s and designed to slice flesh off the car­cass,” Brain explained in an inter­view. So it could not crunch the bone and much of the skele­ton would remain for scav­engers like hye­nas. Dinofe­lis would leave behind more than a leop­ard would, for instance.”

While some time has passed since the pub­li­ca­tion of his ground­break­ing book, Brain still believes it is high­ly like­ly that Dinofe­lis and oth­er sabre-toothed cats were feast­ing on hominids at Swartkrans. 

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Dinofe­lis bar­lowi is a large cat (or felid) and rep­re­sents the flag­ship of the King­dom of the Big Cats exhi­bi­tion. Dis­played here is the excep­tion­al­ly well pre­served orig­i­nal skull. This spec­i­men was col­lect­ed dur­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia exca­va­tion between 1947 and 1948.

The secrets are in the teeth

But a study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Human Evo­lu­tion (Dec 2000, Vol­ume 39, Issue 6, Pages 565 — 576) appears to exon­er­ate Dinofe­lis, fol­low­ing the analy­sis of fos­sil tooth enamel.

Instead, it seems the sabre-toothed cat Megan­tere­on was the cul­prit prey­ing on hominids in the Swartkrans 2.5-million years ago, among oth­er predators.

Palaeon­tol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Fran­cis Thack­er­ay, work­ing for the then Trans­vaal Muse­um in Pre­to­ria (now the Dit­song Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry), and archae­ol­o­gists Julia Lee-Thorp and Niko­laas van der Mer­we from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cape Town, analysed the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of tooth enam­el from preda­tors and hominids found at Swartkrans.

Includ­ed were leop­ard, lion and spot­ted hye­nas, as well as Dinofe­lis, Megan­tere­on and Chasma­por­thetes, an extinct hye­na. They also analysed tooth enam­el from Homo ergaster and Paran­thro­pus robus­tus.

Of inter­est was the tiny car­bon con­tent of each tooth – the car­bon iso­topes and their ratios to one anoth­er, which deter­mine a creature’s diet.

The car­bon iso­tope ratios of prey are mir­rored in their preda­tors, and it was dis­cov­ered that Megan­tere­on, as well as leop­ards and spot­ted hye­nas, had a taste for hominids. 

The car­bon iso­tope ratios of Dinofe­lis, on the oth­er hand, imply that it fed on graz­ers like antelope.

The cura­tor of col­lec­tions at the Dit­song Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, Stephany Potze, says while many Dinofe­lis fos­sil remains have been found at Bolt’s Farm, they have dis­cov­ered no evi­dence of preda­to­ry behav­iour in Dinofe­lis.

She points out that oth­er ani­mal fos­sils are often found togeth­er with car­ni­vore remains. “[But] we have no tooth marks on these bones that can be assigned to Dinofe­lis specif­i­cal­ly,” she says. It is also pos­si­ble that Dinofe­lis could form part of a fau­nal deposit as a result of it falling into a cav­ern and being trapped, or even that it was prey to anoth­er carnivores.” 

The mys­tery remains unsolved as to whether Dinofe­lis was a hominid hunter or not but you can see a well-pre­served Dinofe­lis skull at the King­dom of the Big Cats fos­sil dis­play at Maropeng until Feb­ru­ary 2012

More facts about Dinofe­lis

Dinofe­lis was a crea­ture sim­i­lar to the jaguar of South Amer­i­ca, and between a lion and a leop­ard in size. Its dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture, oth­er than its huge fangs, was its pow­er­ful front legs, pre­sum­ably used to pin down its prey rip­ping into it. 

It is also known as a false sabre-tooth” com­pared to oth­er kinds of sabre-toothed crea­tures, because its teeth were not as knife-like, and were more like those of mod­ern-day cats. 

One of the most excit­ing dis­cov­er­ies was the 1947 to 1948 exca­va­tion at Bolt’s Farm of three, well pre­served skele­tons – a male, a female and a young­ster, togeth­er with the remains of baboons. It was thought the baboons fell into a pit, fol­lowed by the feline family.

Dinofe­lis remains have also fre­quent­ly been found in caves, togeth­er with the bones of their ani­mal prey, giv­ing rise to the idea that they may have been cave dwellers. 

Palaeon­tol­o­gists believe that, due to its heavy build, the Dinofe­lis was not a fast ani­mal. It would there­fore have relied on its excel­lent night vision and stealth to stalk and ambush its prey, haul­ing it back to its lair.

This pre­his­toric car­ni­vore has also been dis­cov­ered in Asia, Europe and North Amer­i­ca and lived between 5-mil­lion and 1.4-million years ago. 

Because there are no remains of skin or soft tis­sue, no-one knows for sure what Dinofe­lis’ coat looked like, which is why you see dif­fer­ent artists’ impres­sions. In Africa, Dinofe­lis is often por­trayed as hav­ing spots, like a leop­ard or cheetah.

Fur­ther reading:

Study­ing fos­sils and extinct ani­mals, Maropeng Exhi­bi­tion Guide
Bolt’s Farm – the King­dom of the Big Cats’
The King­dom of the Big Cats fos­sil dis­play – pho­to essay
Chem­istry and Hominid Fos­sils: How to extract infor­ma­tion about diet from those ancient teeth and bones, by Julia Lee-Thorp