Short Takes

July 1, 2017 Issue




An Excavation Reveals Cats’ 500-lb. Ancestor

A full-time 10-member team working at an archaeological dig in Northwest Germany has found a nearly complete skull of a saber-toothed cat that suggests that the animal existed 300,000 years ago. Scientists had believed the big cats — estimated to reach 500 pounds or more — were extinct about 500,000 years ago.

The discovery shows the cats were not as rare as previously thought, says Jordi Serangeli, a scientist at the University of T bingen and excavation leader at the approximately 300,000-year-old site.

An examination of the skull fragments at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands revealed the animal to be representative of the European saber-toothed cat, Homotherium. “In total, there are three individuals of Homotherium present in these relatively young sediment layers,” the University says about the site near the small town of Schöningen.

© Corey Ford | Bigstock

More is known about the saber-toothed tiger Smilodon than his possible cousin Homotherium, perhaps due to more archeological exploration, including the discovery of thousands of Smilodon bones at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

Homotherium differs from the more widely known saber-toothed tiger, Smilodon, which despite its name, was not closely related to tigers. More is known about the smaller Smilodon, perhaps because of extensive digs in the Western Hemisphere. They include “hundreds of thousands of Smilodon bones” found at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, according to the University of California Museum of Paleontology. The Smilodon had a bobtail, suggesting that it didn’t chase prey but instead ambushed them.

Homotherium was a formidable fellow — as large as an adult lion, with long claws and razor-sharp seven-inch curved canine teeth, says the University of Tubingen, explaining that, “The saber-toothed cat was a dangerous predator that even posed a risk to the humans of its time.”

The scientists so far have restored 11 Homotherium bone fragments to recreate an almost complete neurocranium. This recreation offers the potential to improve our understanding of the cat’s visual and auditory abilities and feeding habits, an invaluable asset for understanding the European saber-toothed cat, the university says.

Some 50 scientists from 30 institutions around the world are researching the discoveries from Schöningen. During the busy season, as many as 10 students join the full-time team to continue to work toward improving our understanding of the life of prehistoric Homotherium.

No News to Us

Cats are “more social than typically given credit,” say researchers at Oregon State University. They studied 50 cats from shelters and home environments, recording interest levels in food, toys, scents, and people.

The preferred choice for 50 percent of the cats tested? Interaction with people. Only 37 percent chose food. “Increasingly, cat cognition research is providing evidence of their complex socio-cognitive and problem-solving abilities,” the scientists say in their report published in the journal Behavioural Processes. “Nonetheless, it is still common belief that cats are not especially sociable or trainable.”

No difference was seen in the choices of owned or shelter cats, who were 1 to 20 years of age. (The scent was catnip; the toy, a mouse design with a shaker inside.) The researchers conclude that additional studies could help determine whether using a “cat-preferred stimulus” would help motivate cats to perform requested tasks.

To underscore the point about feline sociability, the study found that in the final session of the tests, cats spent 65 percent of their time with people.