Evolution in the sabre-tooth cat, Smilodon fatalis, in response to Pleistocene climate change



The late Pleistocene was a time of environmental change, culminating in an extinction event. Few fossil localities record a temporal series of carnivore fossil populations from this interesting interval as well as Rancho La Brea (RLB). We analysed mandibles of Smilodon fatalis from RLB using 2-D geometric morphometrics to examine whether, and how, mandibular shape changes through time. Smilodon fatalis shows mandibular evolution with oscillations between a small, ancestral-type morph in pits 77 (≈37 Kybp) and 2051 (≈26 Kybp), a larger, more derived morph in pits 91 (≈28 Kybp) and 61-67 (≈13.6 Kybp), and an intermediate morph from pit 13 (≈17.7 Kybp). These oscillations end in pit 61-67, with greatest body size, and are estimated to have its widest gape and lowest bite force. Additionally, variation is lowest in pit 61-67, which was deposited concurrent with the Bølling–Allerød warming event, which may have important implications for the timing or conditions during the extinction event. Contra to a temporal Bergmann's rule, such rapid warming events appear to be correlated with larger, derived, morphologies whereas static, cooler, climates correlate with gracile, ancestral morphologies.