Computers take bite out of sabre-toothed cats

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Computer modelling technology has helped scientists to reveal that the Ice-Age sabre-toothed cat was not such a fearsome predator as its appearance would suggest.

An Australian study published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reports that the Smilodon's jaws were not as dangerous as they first appeared.

Scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Newcastle used a computer-based technique called Finite Element Analysis to test the bite force and feeding mechanics of the 'fearsome' predator.

The analysis allowed the team to "reverse engineer" designs to determine the forces that a structure like the Smilodon's skull was able to handle.

"Skulls are much more complex then most man-made structures, and to apply the technique to a fossil big cat required some tricks that engineers usually have to handle," said the University of Newcastle's Colin McHenry, lead author on the paper.

UNSW palaeontologist Dr Steve Wroe added: "Historically there have been a number of interpretations about how Smilodon killed. Early researchers thought it had a weak bite. More recently, people have suggested that the bite was strong."

Using the skull of a modern-day lion for comparison the team determined that Smilodon had a relatively weak bite, about one third as powerful as a lion of similar size.

"For all its reputation, Smilodon had a wimpy bite," said Dr Wroe. "It bit like a moggy."

In a range of "digital crash tests" the team found that the sabre-tooth skull performed very poorly compared to that of the lion under most conditions.

"The sabre-toothed cat had an immensely powerful body, perfect for wrestling large prey to the ground, and our models show that it needed to do this before trying a bite," added McHenry.

"Killing was more likely applied to the prey's throat, because it is easier to restrain the prey this way. Once the bite was done the prey would have died almost instantly."
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