March 25, 2009 § 1 Comment

Sabertooth skull

Sabertooth skull

Yesterday, I was just getting a start on sorting my clothes (Florida, Philip’s apartment, storage, Housing Works), and thinking the dizzy wanting-to-lie-down feeling was emotional, until the toothache that’s been bothering me mostly at night—taking hideous, pus-and-beetle shapes in my dreams—hit me with a full body infection.

I have an appointment with the dentist later, the ever-chirpy Tim who makes me long for the wild-eyed dentists of fiction who entertain you in their backyard, wearing white flannels and drinking gin and tonics, as they dose you liberally with laughing gas, then tie the tooth to a back bumper of a motorcycle driven by a maniacal 13 year old.

Human teeth are so pitiful. It’s no wonder the young girls and menopausal women of America are mooning over Stephanie Meyer’s and Charlaine Harris’s vampires. We’ve all known the bliss of clean white canines sinking into our adoring flesh—1/8 of an inch in, anyway, with your average non-psychotic house cat.

Cats know how pretty their teeth are and that you want to be bitten by them, if not actually hurt or eaten. They’ll let you kiss them on the lips, though they prefer not to. And surely you’ve noticed how leisurely they yawn, allowing you a good look.

To prepare for the unpleasantness of the dentist’s chair, I’ve been reading about an old favorite of mine—the sabertooth cat, aka sabertooth tiger though they’re not ‘tigers’ or even very tiger-like, so we can’t call them that anymore.

The first thing I learned is that the sabertooth is the California State Fossil. I didn’t realize states had official fossils and many do not. (Florida, for example doesn’t. One website whines that the state stone—agatized coral—is really a fossil, but there’s no need to be defensive. Florida has a very apt state mammal: the cougar.)

Sabertooths were native to North America and were especially fond of L.A. Roughly the size of an African lion, though up to 50 % heavier, the sabertooth wasn’t a running, pouncing beast but a compact, rugged predator of slow-moving meat-farms like mammoths, mastadons and ground sloths. Its lower jaw could swing to almost a right angle when opened to attack—getting the jaw out of the way of the long canines. The lower jaw was fairly puny, like a screen door.

Big cats generally kill by strangling their prey, which takes a few minutes, as anyone who’s watched PBS lion kills can attest to. Since the sabertooth’s lower jaw muscles were probably too weak to strangle, or to provide the anchoring needed to bite through bone, scientists have concluded that the cat used its considerable upper-body strength to wrestle prey to the ground, then stabbed its canines into the throat, cutting through the jugular vein and/or trachea. This quick back-alley slashing helped protect the glorious teeth, which were thicker from front to back than from side to side, like knives resting on their points, and thus vulnerable to being snapped off under pressure.

The sabretooth’s nasal openings were further back than they are in modern cats, allowing the cat to continue breathing while its head was buried inside its victim. It’s sobering to realize many sabertooths must have drowned in blood before evolution worked that out. Complex analysis having to do with plant fossils in tar pits, where many sabertooths ended up,  suggest the sabertooth had a dappled coat like a leopard. But this is pure speculation as is the claim that for fun the young cats liked to suck up blood from dying mastadons and spray it on cave walls in an activity yet to be known as art.


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