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The newly identified saber-toothed cat is one of the largest in history



The newly identified saber-toothed cat is one of the largest in history

The humerus, excavated from north central Oregon, is now on display at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Credit: John Orcott

A giant saber-toothed cat has lived in North America for between 5 million and 9 million years, weighing up to 900 pounds and hunting prey that probably weighed 1

,000 to 2,000 pounds, scientists said in a new study today.

The researchers painstakingly compared seven uncategorized fossil specimens with pre-identified fossils and bone samples from around the world to describe the new species. Their discovery justifies the use of the ulna of the humerus – in addition to the teeth – to identify fossils of large saber-toothed cats, whose massive forearms allow them to subdue their prey.

The recently identified cat weighs an average of about 600 pounds and could kill prey weighing up to 6,000 pounds, scientists estimate, suggesting that their findings provide evidence for another giant cat, one of the largest in Earth’s history.

“We believe these are animals that routinely removed buffalo-sized animals,” said study co-author Jonathan Calede, an assistant professor of evolution, ecology and biology at the Ohio State University campus in Marion. “It was the biggest living cat at the time.”

Calede completed the study with John Orkut, an assistant professor of biology at Gonzaga University, who initiated the project. Orkut found a large specimen of a bone on the upper arm that was labeled as a cat in the collection of the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History when he was a graduate student, and collaborated with Calede in his long-standing effort to figure out what kind of cat could be.

They found that the new species is an ancient relative of the most famous saber-toothed cat, Smilodon, the famous fossil found in the La Brea tar pits in California, which disappeared about 10,000 years ago.

The Oregon specimen was excavated in the traditional lands of the Cayuse, a tribe united with Umatilla and Walla Walla in the Confederate tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. In recognition of its origins, Calede and Orcutt collaborated with the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute to name the new species Machairodus lahayishupup. Machairodus is a genus of large saber-toothed cats that lived in Africa, Eurasia and North America, and in Old Caucasian Laháyis Húpup means “ancient wild cat”.

The study was published today (May 3, 2021) in Journal of Mammalian Evolution.

Orcutt and Calede found similar uncategorized specimens of fossil upper shoulders at the Idaho Museum of Natural History, where a large cat’s forearm was accompanied by teeth – commonly considered the gold standard for identifying new species – as well as at the California Museum of Paleontology and Texas Memorial Museum. .

“One of the great stories of all this is that we eventually found specimen after specimen of this giant cat in museums in Western North America,” Orkut said. “They were obviously big cats. We started with a few assumptions based on their age, in the range of 5 1/2 to 9 million years, and based on their size, because these things were huge.

“What we didn’t have then, what we have now, is the test of whether the size and anatomy of these bones tell us anything – and it turns out that yes, they do.”

The largest of the seven Machairodus lahayishupup humerus fossils available for analysis was more than 18 inches long and 1.7 inches in diameter. By comparison, the average modern male lion on the humerus is about 13 inches long.

The researchers hypothesized that if an isolated forearm bone was useful for distinguishing species, this would be true among the large species of cats alive today. Kalede and Orkut visited numerous museums in the United States, Canada and France to photograph specimens of the forearms of lions, cougars, panthers, jaguars and tigers, as well as fossils of previously identified missing large cats.

Calede uses software to place landmarks on each digitized sample, which, when put together, will create a pattern on each elbow.

“We found that we could quantify the differences on a fairly fine scale,” Calede said. “It told us that we could use the shape of the elbow to distinguish the types of modern big cats.

“Then we took the tool to the fossils – these giant elbows scattered in the museums had a common feature. This told us that they all belonged to the same species. Their unique shape and size told us that they were also very different from everything, which, in other words, these bones belong to one species, and that species is a new species. “

Researchers calculate estimates of the body size of the new species based on the relationship between the size of the humerus and body weight in modern big cats and speculate on the cat’s prey based on its size and the animals known to have lived in the region. at that time: rhinos were especially numerous, as were giant camels and giant terrestrial sloths.

The teeth from the Idaho Museum of Natural History come from the lower jaw and do not include saber-toothed canines, but provide further evidence that the fossil belongs to the genus Machairodus, which gave its name to machairodontines, the technical name for the saber-toothed cat, Orkut said.

“We are absolutely convinced that this is a saber-toothed cat and we are absolutely convinced that this is a new species of the genus Machairodus,” he said. “The problem is that in part because in the past we didn’t have a clear idea of ​​how many species were there, our understanding of how all these saber-toothed cats are related to each other is a bit vague, especially early in their evolution.”

Finding that only the humerus can be analyzed to identify a fossil cat has important implications for the field – “large, dense” saber-toothed forearm bones are the most common fossil cat specimens found during excavations, he said. he.

Only a reconstruction of the evolutionary history of saber-toothed cats can determine where this new species fits, but Orkut and Kalede believe that Machairodus lahayishupup existed at the beginning of the group’s evolution.

The discovery that this giant cat existed at the same time as such animals lived around the world also raises another evolutionary question, Kalede said.

“It is known that there are giant cats in Europe, Asia and Africa, and now we have our giant saber-toothed cat in North America during this period,” he said. “There is a very interesting pattern of repetitive independent evolution of each continent with this gigantic body size in what remains a rather hyperspecialized way of hunting, or we have this ancestral giant saber-toothed cat that has spread across all these continents.

“It’s an interesting paleontological question.”


Ancient DNA offers a new look at the past of saber-toothed cats


More information:
John D. Orcutt et al. Quantitative analyzes of Feliform Humeri reveal the existence of a very large cat in North America during the Miocene, Journal of Mammalian Evolution (2021). DOI: 10.1007 / s10914-021-09540-1

Provided by Ohio State University



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