The origin of “sabre-toothed tiger”

Homotherium tooth

A canine tooth of Homotherium latidens, the original “sabre-toothed tiger”, from Owen (1846).

Common names given to extinct animals are an interesting but understudied phenomenon. One of the most famous and misleading examples is “sabre-toothed tiger”1, which refers to machairodontine cats and usually Smilodon in particular. While still common in popular culture, in scientific literature it has largely been replaced by the more accurate “sabre-toothed cat”. Machairodontines are not closely related to tigers (Panthera tigris) and diverged before the pantherine-feline split (Paijmans et al., 2017). The origin of this name is obscure; I have never seen it discussed, so I decided to investigate. Surprisingly, I found that the original sabre-toothed tiger was not Smilodon.

Machairodontinae phylogeny

A phylogenetic tree of Felidae showing the relationship between machairodontines and tigers, based on the analysis of Paijmans et al. (2017).

The earliest recorded usage of sabre-toothed tiger was by Thomas Miller in 1849, in his poetic summary of the prehistoric fauna of England (Miller, 1849).

“Amid the giant ferns of this early world, which have dwindled down to the knee-deep bracken through which we now tread, did the striped and sabre-toothed tiger couch, ages before his angry growl ever fell upon any human ear.”

Although no genus/species was specified, it was almost certainly a reference to Machairodus latidens. At the time, it was a recent discovery and the only machairodontine known from England. M. latidens was named by Richard Owen in 1846 for three canines and an incisor from Kent’s Cavern (Owen, 1846). Owen did call it a “sabre-toothed feline animal”, but did not refer to it as a tiger. Exactly why Miller added tiger to the name is unknown. He may have partially confused M. latidens with the contemporary Panthera spelaea, which Owen did call a tiger (it is now known to be closest to lions; Barnett et al., 2016). In any case, Miller’s decision proved to be iconic. The name was even adopted by Owen in a later publication (Owen, 1852).

“In the great extinct sabre-toothed tiger (Machairodus, fig. 580, VI.), the [dental] series is still further reduced by the loss of p[remolar]. 2 in the upper jaw.”

Today, the species latidens is placed in the genus Homotherium and not Machairodus (Antón  et al., 2014). Despite being the original sabre-toothed tiger, Homotherium is now called the scimitar-toothed cat. This case highlights that common names change over time when their first usage is forgotten.

Notes

1There are several alternate spellings, including “sabre-tooth”, “saber-tooth”, and “saber-toothed”. The spelling used here is the original.

References

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2 thoughts on “The origin of “sabre-toothed tiger”

  1. I’d argue that Homotherium, and other machairodontines, are indeed “tigers” and not “cats”. The word cat carries the connotation of a small furred predator, something that can’t seriously harm a human being, with the name also being used to refer to the red panda, some dasyurids and procyonids. Meanwhile none the handful of extant large felids have “cat” in their names, with the possible exception of the uncommon “catamaount” for the puma. I am not a huge polyglot but I do see the same pattern repeating in many languages, for example in my native Portuguese both the puma and the jaguar are called the brown and the spotted “onça” (cognate with “ounce”, “onca”, “uncia” and “lynx”) respectively, despite not being close relatives. I know that in many Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, the jaguar is also called the “tiger”. The insistence that machairodontines are not tigers but cats feels to me like a disservice to the meanings and connotations of those words.

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    1. I prefer to use common names in a monophyletic sense, as it reduces confusion for specialists and laypeople alike. All felids are cats and all non-felids are not cats. “Cat” does not necessarily refer to small animals as you claim. For example, pantherines are collectively referred to as the “big cats”. “Tiger” exclusively refers to Panthera tigris and closely-related extinct species like P. zdanskyi. I see no good reason to call machairodontines “tigers”, especially when “sabre-toothed cats” and “sabrecats” are far more commonly-used nowadays.

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