Joint Diseases Plagued the Ice Age’s Fierce Predators: Sabertooth Cats and Dire Wolves

Sabertooth Cat Snow Art Concept

Researchers found that Ice Age sabertooth cats and dire wolves had a high rate of osteochondrosis in their joints, based on over 1,500 limb bones studied from the La Brea Tar Pits. This research suggests a potential link between these ancient species’ health issues and those of modern domestic animals. Credit:

Study finds surprisingly high incidence of osteochondrosis in these extinct predators.

Ice Age sabertooth cats and dire wolves experienced a high incidence of bone disease in their joints, according to a study published recently in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Hugo Schmökel of Evidensia Academy, Sweden and colleagues.

Osteochondrosis in Ancient Species

Osteochondrosis is a developmental bone disease known to affect the joints of vertebrates, including humans and various domesticated species. However, the disease is not documented thoroughly in wild species, and published cases are quite rare. In this study, Schmökel and colleagues identify signs of this disease in fossil limb bones of Ice Age sabertooth cats (Smilodon fatalis) and dire wolves (Aenocyon dirus) from around 55,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Dire Wolf Reconstruction

Photograph of a dire wolf reconstruction on exhibit at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum. Credit: La Brea Tar Pits and Museum & Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, CC-BY 4.0

Research Findings From La Brea Tar Pits

Researchers examined over 1,000 limb bones of sabertooth cats and over 500 limb bones of dire wolves from the Late Pleistocene La Brea Tar Pits, finding small defects in many bones consistent with a specific manifestation of bone disease called osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD). These defects were mainly seen in shoulder and knee joints, with an incidence as high as 7% of the examined bones, significantly higher than that observed in modern species.

Implications and Future Research

This study is limited to isolated bones from a single fossil locality, so further study on other fossil sites might reveal patterns in the prevalence of this disease, and from there might shed light on aspects of these animals’ lives. It remains unclear, for example, whether these joint problems would have hindered the hunting abilities of these predators. Furthermore, OCD is commonly seen in modern domestic dogs which are highly inbred, so it’s possible that the high incidence of the disease in these fossil animals could be a sign of dwindling populations as these ancient species approached extinction.

Saber-Toothed Cat in the La Brea Tar Pits

Detail from a 1911 illustration of a saber-toothed cat in the La Brea Tar Pits. Credit: Robert Bruce Horsfall & Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, CC-BY 4.0

Connection to Modern Animals

The authors add: “This study adds to the growing literature on Smilodon and dire wolf paleopathology, made possible by the unparalleled large sample sizes at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum. This collaboration between paleontologists and veterinarians confirms that these animals, though they were large predators that lived through tough times and are now extinct, shared common ailments with the cats and dogs in our very homes today.”

Reference: “Subchondral defects resembling osteochondrosis dissecans in joint surfaces of the extinct saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis and dire wolf Aenocyon dirus” by Hugo Schmökel, Aisling Farrell and Mairin F. Balisi, 12 July 2023, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0287656

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