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Extinct Saber-toothed Cat (Smilodon fatalis) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Extinct Saber-toothed Cat (Smilodon fatalis)

How Do We Know This?

Like living animals, fossil remains of once-living animals are classified and grouped according to their relationships to each other and to their ancestors.

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Relationship of Smilodon to modern cats

  • Some genetic and anatomical studies put Smilodon in a sub-family (Machairodontinae), distinct from all modern cats (Barnett et al 2005) (Turner 1997) 
  • Other classifications place Smilodon with the modern cats in Felidae (Janczewsi 1992)

Scientific name

  • Smilodon comes from the Greek word for "blade" or "chisel" and the Greek word for "tooth"

Common name

  • 'Saber tooth' cat refers to the blade or knife-like canine teeth of this fossil felid
  • Often mistakenly referred to as tigers; aren't closely related to modern tigers

Evolutionary History

  • Cats with saber-like canines evolved in several lineages, mostly during the last 10 million years
  • Smilodon's direct ancestor was Megantereon, known from 6 million year-old fossils from Florida (Shaw and Cox 2006)
  • Three species of Smilodon existed between 2.5 million and 13,000 years ago (Turner 1997)
    • S. gracilis: smallest and earliest. Found mainly in eastern North America
    • S. populator: largest, about the size of modern lions. Found in South America
    • S. fatalis: intermediate in size. Found in North America and Pacific coastal areas of South America
  • Smilodon fatalis became extinct about 13,000 years ago.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Subfamily: Machairodontinae (extinct saber-toothed cats)

Genus: Smilodon (Lund, 1842)

Species: Smilodon fatalis (Leidy, 1868) - saber-toothed cat (extinct)
Species: Smilodon gracilis (extinct)
Species: Smilodon populator (extinct)

Page Citations

Barnett (2005)
Hunt (1996)
Janczewski et al (1992)
Shaw and Cox (2006)
Turner (1997)

Wilson & Reeder (2005)

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