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Keywords:

  • bite force quotients;
  • canine strength;
  • prey size

The sabretooth felids were widespread across much of the world in the Late Tertiary, and appear to have been an important group of large predators. Owing to the substantially different skull morphology of derived sabretooths compared with extant felids, there has been considerable debate over the killing mode, bite forces, and bending strength of the large upper canines, and over the implications of these characteristics on feeding ecology. Debates have, however, usually been based on indirect comparisons of force vectors. In this paper, I provide assessments of the estimated force output from the jaw adductor muscles, based on estimates of muscle cross-sectional areas and force vectors, along with canine bending strengths, in a variety of sabretooth felids, in comparison with extant felids. In general, sabretoothed felids had moderately powerful bites, albeit with less jaw adductor power for their body sizes compared with extant felids, sometimes markedly so. Less derived sabrecats appear to have had proportionally higher bite forces than derived forms. The length of the upper canines seemingly compromised their bending strength at any given body size, and again this was most marked in derived forms. However, compared with estimated jaw adductor forces, the canines of sabrecats appear, if anything, to have been stronger than those of extant conical-toothed felids. It has previously been suggested that large sabretoothed felids hunted large prey with a canine shearing bite, powered in part by the jaw adductors and in part by the muscles of the upper neck–occipital region. The present results of canine bending strengths versus the predicted bite force from the jaw adductors supports this suggestion. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 151, 423–437.