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The big cat’s DNA was extracted from the fossil of a particular species of sabre-toothed cat known as the scimitar-toothed cat (Homotheríum latidens). It is the first of its kind to ever be discovered. In sequencing its genome, scientists have discovered that the cat was a specialist at hunting prey over long distances.
As was the case with other beasts in the sabre family, the scimitar-toothed cat went extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene, around 10,000 to 30,000 years ago.
However this specimen, found deep in permafrost sediments near Dawson City, Yukon territory, Canada, particularly stunned researchers.
This is because analysis revealed it to be at least 47,000 years old.
A team at the University of Copenhagen used groundbreaking genome-sequencing tools to read the big cat’s entire genetic code.
This would have been packed into each of its cell nuclei – the animal’s nuclear genome.
According to the research, the cat’s genetic makeup suggests it was a highly skilled long distance hunter, following its prey for miles before launching a deadly attack.
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Dr Michael Westbury, co-author of the study, told BBC Science Focus Magazine how the team had been able to look into the ancient animal.
He said: “They very likely had very good daytime vision and displayed complex social behaviours.
“They had genetic adaptation for strong bones and cardiovascular and respiratory systems, meaning they were well suited for endurance running.
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“Based on this, we think they hunted in a pack until their prey reached exhaustion.”
Many modern animals are known to use this endurance technique.
It usually occurs when they might be considerably slower than their prey but have the stamina to out-do them over longer chases.
Further, the study also found that all modern cats are related to sabre-toothed cats, albeit distantly.
They branched off from them on the evolutionary tree at least 22.5 million years ago.
This is compared to humans and gibbons splitting between 15 and 20 million years ago.
Sabre-toothed cats were more genetically diverse than their modern successors.
This means there would have been a lot more of them around – it is true that their fossils have been found all around the world.
Co-author of the study, Dr Ross Barnett, said the family of cats was an efficient survivor of its time.
He said: “This was an extremely successful family of cats.
“They were present on five continents and roamed the Earth for millions of years before going extinct.
“The current geological period is the first time in 40 million years that Earth has lacked sabre-too predators.
“We just missed them.”
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