A fossil of a scimitar-toothed cat found near Dawson City would lead to a newly-published study on the behavioral traits of these ancient cats, including hunting in a group and pursuing prey to the point of exhaustion.
A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen looked at the genetic makeup of the Homotherium latidens specimen and were able to determine that the species was actually more abundant than previously believed. They also found out that it is only very distantly related to modern feline species.
The team extracted a DNA sample from a humerus bone found in the Klondike permafrost sediment, which is at least 47,500 years old, and mapped out its nuclear genome.
They compared it to the DNA of 16 species of cat, including the Bengal tiger, clouded leopard, and domestic cat, as well as 2 species of hyena. From this, the researchers were able to determine specific genes associated with certain traits.
Once occupying southern Africa across Europe and Asia and even into the Americas, the scimitar-toothed cat is said to have genetic traits indicating that it had excellent eyesight and was well-suited to daytime hunting. According to Ross Barnett, lead author of the study, most modern cats are nocturnal, while a few species are diurnal.
With its strong bones, respiratory system, and circulatory systems, it also appears that the species was genetically adapted for endurance running. It is likely that instead of taking down prey using its long fangs, the big cat chased them to the point of exhaustion.
Not to be confused with its more well-known and larger cousins, the sabre-toothed tigers, the scimitar-toothed cats could have engaged in coordinated group hunting that would make hunting and bringing down larger prey result in a better outcome.
The team also discovered new findings including confirmation that the species is highly genetically divergent from modern cats. They found out that the cat whose bones were fossilized had high genetic diversity. Also, scimitar-toothed cats appear to be more abundant than previously thought. This is in contrast to previous belief that the cats were low in numbers due to the rare discovery of fossils.
Grant Zazula, Yukon paleontologist and co-author of the report, an animal has to die in a place where the weather condition is perfect for fossilization for fossilization to occur. Certain types of environments, such as the mountains, are not conducive to fossilization. In relation to the scimitar cats, they specialized in living in higher altitudes and upland environments, which decreases the chances of having their fossils preserved.
Zazula also talks about the contribution of the study in highlighting new opportunities for paleontologists to conduct DNA and genome analyses. Unlike traditional methods such as studying bones, studying genetic information provides experts the opportunity to learn about a species’ behavior.
Mick Westbury, another co-author of the study and a specialist in paleo-genomics, agrees and notes that the technological advancements in the field have made studying ancient DNA not only easier but also more cost-effective.
A big problem with studying DNA from subfossils used to be contamination, but with the new technology, scientists can sequence millions or billions of independent DNA fragments. There, they can identify which ones are likely coming from the organism being studied and recreate the whole genome. In the future, experts may be able to identify even more specific traits of long extinct creatures.
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