Background: The sabertooth cat, Smilodon fatalis, was an enigmatic predator without a true living analog. Their elongate canine teeth were more vulnerable to fracture than those of modern felids, making it imperative for them to immobilize prey with their forelimbs when making a kill. As a result, their need for heavily muscled forelimbs likely exceeded that of modern felids and thus should be reflected in their skeletons. Previous studies on forelimb bones of S. fatalis found them to be relatively robust but did not quantify their ability to withstand loading.
Methodology/principal findings: Using radiographs of the sabertooth cat, Smilodon fatalis, 28 extant felid species, and the larger, extinct American lion Panthera atrox, we measured cross-sectional properties of the humerus and femur to provide the first estimates of limb bone strength in bending and torsion. We found that the humeri of Smilodon were reinforced by cortical thickening to a greater degree than those observed in any living felid, or the much larger P. atrox. The femur of Smilodon also was thickened but not beyond the normal variation found in any other felid measured.
Conclusions/significance: Based on the cross-sectional properties of its humerus, we interpret that Smilodon was a powerful predator that differed from extant felids in its greater ability to subdue prey using the forelimbs. This enhanced forelimb strength was part of an adaptive complex driven by the need to minimize the struggles of prey in order to protect the elongate canines from fracture and position the bite for a quick kill.