Sabertoothed Cat: California's State Fossil

The carnivorous sabertoothed cats, extinct members of the cat family Felidae, flourished throughout North America from the late Eocene and early Oligocene (40 to 35 million years ago) until the close of the Pleistocene Epoch about 11,000 years ago). During the Pleistocene, the sabertoothed cat successfully "raided" South America finding large-hoofed mammals that were easy prey. In California, the cat's fossilized remains are found most abundantly at the Rancho La Brea pits (late Pleistocene) in Los Angeles. Here the sabertoothed cat, attracted by the cries of struggling creatures caught in the sticky pools of oil and tar, hunted the prey and in turn fell into the efficient trap.

In contrast to modern cats, the sabertooths had exceedingly long upper canines used for stabbing and slicing. The lower canines were correspondingly reduced in size and, at the front end of the lower jaw, there often was a flange that used as a guard for the large upper canines. As a result of the development of the large dagger-like canines in the upper jaw, the skull of the sabertoothed cat was quite different from that of modern cats. Nasal openings were receded from the position in typical cat skulls and prominent bony ridges ran along the entire length of the hard palate. In the ear region, the mastoid process was powerfully developed for the attachment of muscles which pulled the head down. The lower jaw of the sabertoothed cat could swing to almost a right angle when opened to attack. However, the biting strength of the lower jaw was not as great as it is in modern cats.

The body and limbs of the sabertoothed cat, though approximately the same size as the present-day African lion, were slightly different. The sabertoothed cat's hind limbs were relatively light while the front limbs, rib basket, and breastbone were strong and powerful. The short lower segments of the limbs indicate that this cat was not a fleet-footed carnivore like the modern lion or tiger, but rather a predator of slow-moving mammals such as mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths. The sabertoothed cat probably gripped its prey with its powerful front limbs and, with its upper canines and strong head and neck muscles, repeatedly stabbed a vulnerable spot on the victim's body. Presumably, the backward position of the nasal openings allowed the sabertoothed cat to continue breathing while its head was buried inside its victim. A strongly grooved gum covering the ridges of the hard palate may have aided in sucking blood.

The extinction of the sabertoothed cats may have been related to the decrease in larger animals upon which it preyed. There is some evidence that the mastodon was the favorite victim of some later-day species of sabertoothed cats, because both persisted in North America only until the end of the Pleistocene. In Europe, however, both disappeared in the early Pleistocene.

Sabertoothed cats are the most famous California Ice Age fossil. In January 1974 the species Smilodon californicus was officially designated California's state fossil. This species was one of the last surviving members of a long ancestry of formidable felines called sabertoothed cats.

You can read the law as currently written. See Government Code Section 425.7. [This link is part of a database maintained by the Legislative Counsel of California.]