A sabre-toothed cat, also frequently called a sabre-toothed tiger (spelt saber-toothed in the United States), is "any member of various extinct groups of predatory mammals that were characterized by long, curved saber-shaped canine teeth". The term most frequently applies to cats of the family Machairodontinae, which lived in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas until at least 11,000 years ago, and were also distinguished by very short tails and stocky forequarters. The most famous genus is Smilodon, which, in the species Smilodon populator, is the only sabre-toothed cat known to have migrated to South America. One genus, Homotherium, is also called the scimitar-toothed cat. Although regarded as extinct, cryptozoologists have speculated that a wide range of cryptids reported from Africa, South and Central America, and Asia may be surviving sabre-toothed cats.
The most notable examples of cryptids which have been theorised by some to be surviving sabre-toothed cats are the water lions and tigres de montagne of Africa, and the water tigers and tigre dantero of South America. If all these cryptids are sabre-toothed cats, they present a case of convergent evolution, with one species adapted for an amphibious lifestyle, and another for a montane lifestyle, evolving on both continents. Other cryptids which may be sabre-toothed cats have been reported from China, Mexico, the southern United States, and Southeast Asia.
The sparassodont marsupial Thylacosmilus, which resembled a sabre-toothed cat in an example of convergent evolution, has also been connected with certain cryptids.
Since the 1960's, there have been uncommon reports of cats with long fangs, now termed the tigre dantero, from the cloud forests of Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. The earliest reports described a striped cat smaller than a jaguar, but newer sightings describe a jaguar-sized cat with a tan coat, a short tail, and powerful forelimbs. One of the most famous incidents involving these cats allegedly occured in 1975, when one was supposedly shot in Paraguay and identified by a zoologist named Juan Acavar as a Smilodon.
Although Bernard Heuvelmans regarded these cats as more likely to be surviving descendants of Thylacosmilus than true sabre-toothed cats, other cryptozoologists regard them a more likely to living Smilodon relatives. Karl Shuker writes that, given the apparent extinction or depletion of most of South America's large herbivorous animals, it is unlikely that a full-sized Smilodon could survive there in the present day; however, he suggests that a smaller form would have a better chance of carving out a niche for itself, "especially in relatively inaccessible, undisturbed areas, such as remote, mountainous cloud forests," where a striped coat would provide it with effective camoflauge.
Another way for a sabre-toothed cat to find a niche for itself in modern South America would be to become a semi-aquatic animal. Indeed, sabre-toothed, river-dwelling, cat-like cryptids are reported from South America in the form of water tigers, which include the maipolina and the aypa, and possibly the entzaeia-yawá and the yaquaru. All but the entzaeia-yawá are described as having very large fangs (Philippe Coudray writes that fangs on the entzaeia-yawá may simply not have been noticed by eyewitnesses), and the maipolina and entzaeia-yawá are additionally said to have short, bushy or tufted cow-like tails. All are described as dangerous, river-dwelling animals. One theory regarding these cryptids is that they may be very large, sabre-toothed otters,, but Michel Raynal regards this as improbable, and Shuker writes that only an identification as a sabre-toothed cat can reconcile all their characteristics.
Central & North America
Sabre-toothed cats have been sporadically reported from Mexico and the southern United States, including Arizona and New Mexico. The latest recorded sighting allegedly occurred in 1994 in northern Mexico.
The situation regarded alleged surviving sabre-toothed cats in Africa exactly parallels that of South America. The mountain-dwelling tigres de montagne or "Ennedi mountain tigers" are the most famous of Africa's supposed sabre-tooths. These cats include the tigre de montagne of Chad itself, alongisde the hadjel, the gassingrâm, the vassoko, the nisi or noso, and an unnamed "cave lion" from Mali. A striped, long-fanged cat larger than a lion, the wanjilanko, was also formerly reported from Senegal's Casamance Forest.
These cryptids all closely resemble sabre-toothed cats, which were known from Africa, and when Christian Le Noël showed his Yulu trackers colour drawings of felines including tigers, ocelots, cheetahs, snow leopards, cougars, and a prehistoric Smilodon, the trackers immediately pointed to the Smilodon as "their" mountain tiger. Bernard Heuvelmans suggests that a species of sabre-toothed cat could have adapted to a nocturnal life in the mountains in order to avoid competition with lions. In this theory, the tigre de montagne carries its larger prey, such as antelopes and warthogs, into the mountains in order to escape from scavengers, as its large teeth would make it a slow eater (a fact explicitly confirmed by eyewitness descriptions of the hadjel); and its sabre teeth would be used to dig up animals such as rodents, hares, porcupines, lizards, snakes, and large insects. These smaller animals would make up the bulk of its diet. The tigre de montagne, Heuvelmans suggests, would fill the ecological niche left empty by the absence of bears in Africa.
Just as in South America, fanged, river-dwelling cat-like cryptids are reported from Central, West, and possibly East Africa. Reports are far more numerous than in South America, and the African water lions include the mourou-ngou, the coje ya menia, the dilali, the ngoroli, the nzéfu-loï, and possibly the dingonek.
Heuvelmans theorised that sabre-toothed cats could have adapted to an aquatic existence not only to avoid competition with other predators such as lions, but also to avoid scavengers by leaving their kills underwater to quickly decay. It is also possible that, like walruses, they could use their fangs to dig up animals such as shellfish.
The Chinese guoshanhuang ("the yellow thing that lives among the mountain ranges") is speculated by some to be a surviving sabre-toothed cat such as Dinofelis on account of its long, downward-curved canine teeth - and, like some other alleged living sabre-toothed cats, it is also said to have horizontal stripes. The guoshanhuang is also reported to have a 3'3'' tail, and although most sabre-toothed cats are believed to have had short tails, some, including Dinofelis, were indeed long-tailed.
Richard Freeman also speculated, based on information he received from eyewitnesses, that the Sumatran cigau (described to him as stocky, with disproportionately long front limbs, and "a short, tufted, cow like tail") could be a living Homotherium or scimitar-toothed cat, which is known to have lived in North America, South America, Eurasia, and Africa until at least 12,000 years ago.
Notes and references
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (1995) In Search of Prehistoric Survivors: Do Giant 'Extinct' Creatures Still Exist?, Blandford, ISBN 9780713-724691
- Heuvelmans, Bernard & Rivera, Jean-Luc & Barloy, Jean-Jacques (2007) Les Félins Encore Inconnus d’Afrique, Les Editions de l'Oeil du Sphinx, ISBN 978-2914405430
- Shuker, Karl P. N. "A Supplement to Dr Bernard Heuvelmans' Checklist of Cryptozoological Animals," Fortean Studies 5 (1998)
- Coleman, Loren & Clark, Jerome (1999) Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0684856025
- Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
- Xu, David C. (2018) Mystery Creatures of China: The Complete Cryptozoological Guide, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616464301
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2016) Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616463908
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2010) Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times, CFZ Press, ISBN 978-1-905723-62-1
- Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
- Mackal, Roy P. (1980) Searching for Hidden Animals: An Inquiry Into Zoological Mysteries, Cadogan Books, ISBN 978-0946313051
- Raynal, Michel "Le "tigre à dents en sabre" sud-américain" Institut Virtuel de Cryptozoologie cryptozoo.pagesperso-orange.fr [Accessed 24 May 2019]