Article

Skeletal trauma reflects hunting behaviour in extinct sabre-tooth cats and dire wolves

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0131 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0131
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Abstract

Skeletal-injury frequency and distribution are likely to reflect hunting behaviour in predatory vertebrates and might therefore differ between species with distinct hunting modes. Two Pleistocene predators from the Rancho La Brea asphalt seeps, the sabre-tooth cat, Smilodon fatalis, and dire wolf, Canis dirus, represent ambush and pursuit predators, respectively. On the basis of a collection of over 1,900 pathological elements, the frequency of traumatic injury across skeletal elements in these two species was calculated. Here we show that the frequency of trauma in the sabre-tooth cat exceeds that of the dire wolf (4.3% compared to 2.8%), implying that the killing behaviour of S. fatalis entailed greater risk of injury. The distribution of traumatic injuries also differed between the two species. S. fatalis, an ambush predator, was injured more often than expected across the lumbar vertebrae and shoulders whereas C. dirus, a pursuit predator, had higher than expected levels of injury in the limbs and cervical vertebrae. Spatial analysis was used to quantify differences in the distribution of putative hunting injuries. Analysis of injury locations discriminated true hotspots from injury-dense areas and facilitated interpretation of predatory behaviour, demonstrating the use of spatial analyses in the study of vertebrate behaviour and evolution. These results suggest that differences in trauma distribution reflect distinct hazards of each species’ hunting mode.

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Acknowledgements

F. Heald spent two decades analysing pathologies prior to his death in 2000, and for this we are grateful. We thank A. Farrell, G. Takeuchi and S. Cox of the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum for their help. J. Parkinson, M. Shin and A. Kochapu provided helpful advice on methods. For comments on the paper, we thank the Van Valkenburgh laboratory. J. Keller, T. Galea and K. Keeley helped create the GIS dataset. This work was supported by National Science Foundation grant SGP-1237928.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA.

    • Caitlin Brown
    • , Mairin Balisi
    •  & Blaire Van Valkenburgh
  2. Department of Rancho La Brea, La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California 90036, USA.

    • Christopher A. Shaw

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Contributions

B.V.V. conceived the project; C.B. conceived and carried out the GIS analysis; B.V.V., C.B. and M.B. designed the collections research; C.A.S. diagnosed and curated the pathology specimens; C.B. and M.B. collected pathology type and location data, B.V.V. and C.B. wrote the paper. All authors gave final approval for publication.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Caitlin Brown.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods; Supplementary Tables 1–5; Supplementary Figures 1,2