Natural History Museum Rotterdam

This jaw bone bolsters the case for human contact with saber-toothed cats in Europe

DNA from a 28,000-year-old saber-toothed cat is shaking up the feline family tree. The fossil jaw bone (above), found in 2000 by a trawler in the North Sea, is extremely rare—and puzzling. Scientists have disagreed about when the cats died out in Europe: Several species survived until 11,000 years ago in North America, but most fossils in Europe are at least 300,000 years old. What’s more, researchers weren’t certain how the European species, Homotherium latidens, was related to cats in the Homotherium genus in North America. Now, a team of researchers in Germany has analyzed mitochondrial DNA from the North Sea fossil, comparing it with that from two saber-toothed cat fossils from North and South America. The scientists report today in Current Biology that the DNA in the European bone is very similar to that in a 50,000-year-old Homotherium fossil from the Yukon Territory in Canada—close enough, the researchers say, that they should be considered a single species. Both were only distantly related to the DNA from another saber-toothed cat, Smilodon populator, in a fossil from Chile. That makes today’s tigers and house cats closer cousins than the two types of saber-toothed cats. It also confirms that saber-toothed cats were roaming northern Europe at the same time as early modern humans.