Suiting Up for Smilodon
An exhilaratingly lifelike recreation of a saber-toothed cat will thrill — and teach — audiences in Ice Age Encounters.
This story appeared originally in the 2010 Oct/Nov issue of The Naturalist magazine. The article has been edited from the original by Elon Schoenholz to align with updated institutional naming conventions and shortened.
First things first. It’s not a saber-toothed tiger; it’s a saber-toothed cat.
(Saber-toothed cats branched off the evolutionary tree about 7 million years ago, and Smilodon fatalis was not even closely related to any modern felines, including tigers.) And when you come to the museum at La Brea Tar Pits and see it in person, it will prowl and crouch, peer and stalk, and even sound as though it’s alive — startlingly so. It’s harmless, though. This ferocious beast is actually a masterfully engineered puppet.
BRINGING THE BIG CAT TO LIFE
To recreate this Ice Age carnivore named Callie, NHM staff collaborated with the world-class innovators at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, an outfit whose film and TV credits are too long to list, but are bookended by the Muppets and the rompussing creatures in 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are. The result is a very believable creature based largely on paleontological authority, with a touch of educated conjecture.
After dire wolves, saber-toothed cats are the most commonly preserved large animal at La Brea Tar Pits. More than 2,000 individuals have been recovered. So there is much our scientists know about the lives of these great beasts. They know, for instance, that Smilodon fatalis lived from about 400,000 years ago until they became extinct just 11,000 years ago. (Compare that relatively recent window of time to Hunter, the T. rex represented in Dinosaur Encounters, which became extinct approximately 65 million years ago.) The Southern California that the saber-toothed cat lived in was a coastal sage habitat with scattered pine and oak groves. The climate was cooler, moister, like that found today in the area of the Monterey Peninsula. We also know that this species was an ambush predator well suited to bringing down prey larger than itself. There is good evidence that Smilodon fatalis ate primarily bison in the area of La Brea Tar Pits.
Familiar depictions of the saber-toothed cat often show a sleek body, but the many fossilized bones that have been discovered at La Brea Tar Pits indicate that it was a burly, solidly built cat, about the size of a modern-day large male African lion. “These were linebackers, huge Rottweilers,” said Jennifer Bloom, NHM Performing Artists Supervisor, and one of the Museum staff members who spearheaded Ice Age Encounters. Soft tissues and fur, however, were not preserved in the Rancho La Brea asphalt. “Paleontologists certainly know the anatomy based on its skeleton,” said Henson’s Creature Shop Production Manager Michael Oosterom, “but when it came time to pick the color of the fur and its patterning, those were really educated guesses.”
And that’s where Museum paleontologists came in. The museum at La Brea Tar Pits' former Chief Curator Dr. John M. Harris, Collections Manager Chris Shaw, and Assistant Lab Supervisor Trevor Valle, as well as NHM Curator of Terrestrial Mammals Dr. Xiaoming Wang, consulted on the project. “Based on habitat, which we know a great deal about, and what we see in modern living cats, if saber-toothed cats had any kind of markings on their fur at all, it probably was spots and not stripes,” said Shaw. Both Shaw and Valle enjoyed the subject of so much of their work being brought to vivid life. “It’s really interesting to see something that one has been thinking about for 30 or 40 years—how they lived and moved and fed their young—to see it come alive,” Shaw reflected. Valle calls the saber-toothed cat puppet a confluence of research and imagination that to him amounts to a “dream come true.”