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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

California's Big Bad Cat

In the Late Pleistocene Epoch, a member of the cat family roamed prehistoric California. Scientifically known as Smilodon, this now-extinct animal was about a foot shorter—but twice as heavy—as a modern lion. Because of its deadly-sharp, 8-inch long upper canine teeth, it is more informally known as the saber-toothed tiger.

Unlike modern lions and cheetahs that have long tails to help balance a running animal, the Smilodon had a bobtail, suggesting that it did not chase down prey animals over long distances but instead charged from ambush. It may have lived in packs with a social structure similar to lions, rather than as solitary hunters like tigers. It is believed that Smilodon died out around 13,000 years ago.

Well-preserved fossil bones of this carnivorous saber-toothed creature have been recovered from the tar pits of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, where the animals were trapped in asphalt seeps eons ago. To date over 166,000 specimens have been found there, the world’s largest fossil collection of this species of prehistoric cats.

In 1973 the California Legislature adopted Smilodon californicus as the official State Fossil.

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