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Program Big Cats Initiative

Background Info

Ten thousand years ago, tar pits were a natural and deadly feature of the landscape. Animals became stuck and would sink into the asphalt and die. In the La Brea tar pits of California, scientists have recovered over a million bones. This includes one of the largest and best-preserved collections of sabertooth (Smilodon fatalis) bones in the world. Data collected from the La Brea tar pits helps scientists piece together the natural history of the area, including the history of the sabertooth cat. Scientists have learned that the sabertooth cat first appeared in the archaeological record two million years ago. Sabertooths ranged widely throughout North and South America and are related to modern cats. However, no real descendents of the sabertooth cat are alive today.

Fast Facts

  • One hundred years of excavations at the La Brea tar pits have led to the recovery of over a million bones. This includes one of the largest collections of sabertooth (Smilodon fatalis) bones in the world.
  • Smilodon fatalis means "deadly knife tooth," but the purpose of these large fangs remains a mystery. Sabertooth cats showed up in the fossil record about two million years ago and ranged widely over North and South America.
  • The sabertooth cat (Smilodon fatalis) is the official California State Fossil.
  • The sabertooth cat was very different from the big cats alive today. Sabertooths had a short tail and a heavy, muscular build. Their physical features helped them to ambush and pounce on their prey, rather than slowly stalk and chase it down.
  • Fossils show some evidence that sabertooths were social, perhaps even living in groups to care for one another.

For Further Exploration


Media Credits

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Angela M. Cowan, Education Specialist and Curriculum Designer


Elizabeth Wolzak, National Geographic Society
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society

Expert Reviewer

Dr. Luke Dollar, Conservation Scientist


Alison Michel

National Geographic Program

Big Cats Initiative

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