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Sabre-tooth tigers hunted in packs

Sun, 2nd Nov 2008

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Take a step back to the time when sabre-toothed tigers roamed the land. A new study has suggested these toothy predators were not lone hunters but may in fact have lived in packs like many social carnivores do today.

That's according to Chris Carbone from the Zoological Society of London and his colleagues writing in the journal Biology Letters this week.

The unusual thing Carbone and his colleagues did was to study modern day carnivorous cats in Africa to help understand what their ancient ancestors were doing thousands of years ago.

Ancient tar pits in Los Angeles, the Rancho La Brea, contain the fossilised remains of over 2000 sabre-toothed tigers: the cats had come to the tar pits to feed on prey that had got caught in the sticky tar. The researchers wondered whether all these cats came individually or whether they came together in a pride.

As a way of investigating this, they played back the recorded sounds of prey animals in distress both in the Serengeti region of Tanzania and Kruger National Park in South Africa. There were the same sorts of sounds that the sabre-tooth tigers would have heard thousands of years ago, from wailing prey animals trapped and dying in the tar pits. What they found was that the number of large social carnivores turning up to the recordings was much greater than would be expected based on the overall population size. Around 84 % of the animals that came to check out the noise were lions and hyenas, both social animals.

And the sabre-tooth tigers appeared in a comparable proportion at the Los Angeles tar pits. Along with another animal called the dire wolf, they made up the same 84% as was seen in modern-day Africa; hinting that they too are social and roamed around in gangs - a much more efficient way of scavenging for food.

So as well as being a rather ingenious way of looking in to the past, this study hints at the importance of links between scavenging and living in social groups: something that early humans may well have done just like the sabre-tooths.

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