Unlocking the Secrets of Prehistoric Predators
Paleontologists have uncovered the remains of two previously unknown species of saber-toothed cats that lived in South Africa more than 5 million years ago when a major global transition was taking place. The fossilized skulls and teeth were retrieved from Langebaanweg ‘E’ Quarry, about eight miles from the Atlantic coast.
The paper that announced the fossils in the journal iScience describes the site as "one of the most important fossil communities" for understanding this period. It was during this time that wet forests were dying out, being replaced by grasslands and wooded forests, ushering in a much cooler climate.
The evidence from fossils in Langebaanweg suggests there was a mosaic environment at the time when the world was in transition. As such, today's great cats have adapted to their habitats accordingly.
Five million years ago, Earth's Miocene epoch drew to a close. Shifting continental crusts and the emergence of towering mountain ranges such as the Himalayas caused a drastic cooling, transforming lush wetlands into woodlands and savannas. Several animals went extinct or underwent transformations in order to survive the changing circumstances. As such, “the taxonomy, evolution, and diversity of this fauna is critical for an accurate understanding of the paleoenvironment" according to the authors in their paper.
All cats, from lions to domestic cats, belong to the Felidae family of carnivorous mammals. A subfamily, Felinae, contains the species alive today. Machairodontinae was a subfamily of extinct predators which included four species recently analyzed in a paper: Yoshi obscura, Adelosmilus aff. kabir, Lokotunjailurus chinsamyae and Dinofelis werdelini. Characterized by flatter, more knife-like teeth than their modern counterparts', they were also known as saber-toothed cats. Although they inhabited the same area at the same time, these species likely occupied vastly different ecological niches: L. chinsamyae and A. kabir were larger and adapted for speed - suggesting they lived in open grassland environments - while the smaller D. werdelini and Y. obscura would have probably flourished in forests. Herbivorous fossils found at Langebaanweg suggest that saber-toothed cats coexisted with humans in a Mediterranean climate for around 12 million years until their extinction just 10,000 years ago on multiple continents including Africa, Europe and North America.
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