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Keywords:

  • bite forces;
  • gape angles;
  • killing ecology;
  • muscle torque;
  • sabretoothed felids

The ability of sabretoothed felids to achieve sufficiently high bite forces for predation at extreme gape angles has been the subject of decades of debate. Previous studies have indicated that bite forces in derived sabretoothed felids would have been low, but that they were probably augmented by head depressing muscles. However, bite mechanics is a dynamic process, and mechanical properties change with changes in gape angles. In this study, I present the first comprehensive model of bite mechanics, vector angles, and forces about the temporomandibular joint at gape angles from occlusion to maximal inferred gape in sabretoothed felids. Primitive sabrecats (Machairodus, Paramachairodus) appear broadly comparable to extant large felids (Panthera, Puma), but derived sabrecats in the groups Homotherini (Amphimachairodus, Homotherium, Xenosmilus) and Smilodontini (Megantereon, Smilodon) are often substantially different from either of the former. The ability of the mandibular adductors to generate torque changes with gape angle, indicating that previous models fail to capture potentially important differences in bite function. Inferred muscle sizes and the angles of effective torque from individual adductor fibres in derived sabrecats are different from those of primitive sabrecats and extant large felids, but they had evolved a number of compensatory adaptations for maximizing force output at the canine and carnassial, primarily changes in muscle fibre angles and more compact crania. Inferred outforces at the canines and carnassials were comparable amongst all groups at low gape angles, but at extreme gape angles outforces would have been low, supporting previous hypotheses of head flexor contribution during initial stages of the killing bite in sabrecats. Mandibular adduction in extant carnivores is a complicated pattern of differences in twitch tension and electromyographical activity at different gape angles, and inference of maximal isotonic bite forces from reconstructed mandibular adductor sizes in fossils will give estimates primarily suitable for comparative purposes. Potentially, derived sabrecats could have evolved differences from extant felids in adductor histochemistry or pinnation angle of individual fibres.

© 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 162, 220–242.