National Geographic : 1997 Jun
There's always something new to discover. In 1975, when breaking ground for a museum building, workers unearthed a new fossil de posit. Among the finds were two sabertooth skeletons preserved in the position in which the cats died. Previous skeletons had been cobbled together from pick-up-stick-scattered assemblages of bones. The first intact skele ton examined revealed that the paleontolo gists had configured the toes all wrong. The largest digit went in the thumb position, not in the middle as previously thought. All the skeletons in the collection under went toe rearrangement. A volunteer spent Fridays patiently resorting boxes of toe bones. She only had 10,000 to do. TTENTION PLEASE. Larry Martin will demonstrate how a sabertooth killed its prey. From beneath a jumble of papers and bones in his basement office at the Natural History Museum Sin Lawrence, Kansas, where he is curator of paleontology, Martin pulls out ajambiyya, a 19th-century silver-handled knife from the Middle East. Its shape mimics the deadly curve of a sabertooth's serrated canine. "Most people think that you cut across the neck to kill," he says, slicing the air. "But that would probably only produce a trache otomy. Disturbing but not necessarily fatal. What you really want to do is stab the neck from the side and slice the carotid artery. That way your prey bleeds to death. It's a lot quicker." So Martin believes the sabertooth aimed for the jugular. Others think the cat aimed for the belly or pounced on its victim's back and went for the neck. How the sabertooth killed is one of the great debates in cat pale ontology. Without a living sabertooth around to observe, it's hard to know who's right. Smilodonfatalisis not the only sabertooth, merely the best known and most recent A fast flip in free fall shows off the "righting reflex" that helps cats survive tumbles. With thick foam pads waitingbelow, a practiced Siamese swiftly assumes an impact-resistant posture-toes spread,legs stretched,and back arched-fora textbook feline touchdown.