Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Curious Mix of Precision and Brawn in a Pouched Super-Predator

July 1, 2013 — A bizarre, pouched super-predator that terrorised South America millions of years ago had huge sabre-like teeth but its bite was weaker than that of a domestic cat, new research shows.

Australian and American marsupials are among the closest living relatives of the extinct Thylacosmilus atrox, which had tooth roots extending rearwards almost into its small braincase.

"Thylacosmilus looked and behaved like nothing alive today," says UNSW palaeontologist, Dr Stephen Wroe, leader of the research team.

"To achieve a kill the animal must have secured and immobilised large prey using its extremely powerful forearms, before inserting the sabre-teeth into the windpipe or major arteries of the neck -- a mix of brute force and delicate precision."

The iconic North American sabre-toothed 'tiger', Smilodon fatalis, is often regarded as the archetypal mammalian super-predator.

However, Smilodon -- a true cat -- was just the end point in one of at least five independent 'experiments' in sabre-tooth evolution through the Age of Mammals, which spanned some 65 million years.

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