First fossil footprints of saber-toothed cats are bigger than Bengal tiger paws

Daniel Boh/Museo Municipal de Miramar

First fossil footprints of saber-toothed cats are bigger than Bengal tiger paws

A famous fossil trove in Argentina recently gave up a new treasure: the first fossil footprints ever reported of the saber-toothed cat Smilodon (above). The four tracks, discovered last year, are larger than those of today’s Bengal tiger, measuring—in one case—19.2 centimeters across. That’s approximately the span of an adult human hand with fingers spread wide. At the time the tracks were made—about 50,000 years ago in the middle of Earth’s most recent ice age—global sea levels were much lower and the site, now a wave-washed portion of the coast near Miramar, Argentina, would have been a few kilometers from the sea, the researchers reported at the 30th Argentine Meeting of Vertebrate Paleontology last month. The ancient footprints were probably made by S. populator, a species about 20% heftier than today’s Bengal tiger and known to live only in South America. (Its better-known relative, S. fatalis, is the saber-toothed cat of La Brea Tar Pits fame.) But because it’s so difficult to definitively link fossils such as footprints to the animals that made them, the newly discovered tracks will get their own species name, in accordance with longstanding scientific tradition. The team suggests that the name should be Smilodonichnum miramarensis, a Greek phrase that roughly but aptly translates as “Smilodon footprint from Miramar.”