Saber-Toothed Surprise

SNOWBIRD, UTAH--A new species of saber-toothed cat, unveiled here yesterday at the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, has startled paleontologists with its fearsome, Arnold Schwarzenegger-like features. The million-year-old skeleton combines the deadliest adaptations of several known saber-tooths--powerful limbs and sharp, serrated teeth--making it an even more threatening predator.

Smilodon, the classic saber-toothed cat, was a lion-sized hunter armed with a pair of long and curling canine teeth. With its short, stocky legs, Smilodon was not much of a runner and probably ambushed elephants and other large prey. But saber-toothed cats also came in faster models, like Homotherium, that cruised on long limbs but lacked the trademark curved canines and hefty build. Until now, scientists believed that saber-toothed cats were built with either short legs and long teeth or long legs and short teeth.

But in 1994, John Babiarz, a citrus farmer and amateur saber-toothed cat collector in Mesa, Arizona, acquired an unusual skeleton unearthed several years earlier in Florida. With unusually stocky leg bones and sharp, straight canines, it melded the features of Smilodon and Homotherium, which "was a bit of a shock," says Larry Martin, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who studied the skeleton. Martin believes that the new cat, still unnamed, would have laid an even more deadly ambush than Smilodon, especially because its jaw muscle is longer and oriented to give extra force when clamping down on prey.

The skeleton has awed other experts as well. "I never thought I would see anything larger than Smilodon," says Richard Wheeler, who has worked with saber-toothed cats at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles for almost 20 years. "This is the Arnold Schwarzenegger."