Monday, June 10, 2013

Sabre-Tooth or Mtn. Lion - Pick Your Poison - Shadows on the Trail Trilogy

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Figure 1 - Smilodon fatalis or Sabre-toothed
cat warns a dire wolf that the carcass of a
mammoth at the Rancho La Brea tar pits
belongs to him. A dire wolf in the foreground
fatally stuck in the oozing tar. Photo
courtesy of

      "Her small round ears perked up when she heard a sound in the distance. She waited and then heard the sound again, coming from far down the canyon, in the shadows of the trees. The pupils of her eyes contracted so she could see within the shadows, but before her eyes saw what was making the sound, her keen sense of smell identified it. The smell of fresh blood teased her quivering nostrils. She raised her twitching nose into the air, trying to determine the direction of the smell. Then she heard another sound, the faint snap of a twig. Her ears shot forward and the pupils of her eyes refocused on the area where she had heard the sound. The aroma of fresh blood was now even stronger and her shrunken stomach growled in anticipation. Then, her eyes caught the movement, coming from the trees below..."

      The above passage in blue is from my first book in the SHADOWS IN THE TRAIL TRILOGY called SHADOWS ON THE TRAIL. The passage in blue describes a predator carnivore sizing up its potential prey by using all of its extraordinary natural senses that millions of years of evolution had fine tuned.  

      If you remember my eighth posting of this blog entitled

Figure 2 - Smilodon fatalis reached a
shoulder height of 39 inches and a body
length of 69 inches. Photo courtesy of
Dire Wolves Versus Gray Wolves I described the logic I used to select gray wolves over dire wolves for inclusion when I wrote SHADOWS ON THE TRAIL. I had a similar dilemma in selecting the second predator for SHADOWS ON THE TRAIL. Should I select the formidable, but extinct sabre-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, or should I select an evolutionary survivor, the American mountain lion? Below is information I researched about both species and then you can judge which one I should have used in SHADOWS ON THE TRAIL
      One of the great predators of North America for over one million years was Smilodon fatalis or the sabre-toothed cat. It lived at or near the top of the food chain from about 1.6 million to about 10,000 years ago. Based on skeletal analysis, Smilodon fatalis weighed between 350 to 620 lbs and was about the same size as a modern day African lion, but was probably built more like a bear. DNA studies have confirmed that Smilodon was not related to any living feline species. It had heavier forequarters and lighter hindquarters than an African Lion and was not as fleet of foot. The most distinguishing characteristic of Smilodon fatalis were its large serrated canine teeth which could reach a length of seven or eight inches. Although the teeth were ominous looking, they were fragile and could not even bite through bone. Some analyses has shown that the narrow jaws of Smilodon fatalis probably had one-third to one-half of the biting power of an African lion.      

      Since Smilodon fatalis has been extinct for a very long time, its former habits and life style must be interpreted by analyzing its skeletal remains. Therefore, we return to the gooey graveyard at the Rancho La Brea tar pits in southern California where over over two thousand Smilodon fatalis skeletons have been recovered and their well-preserved bones analyzed. Only the dire wolf has a greater concentration of skeletal material at the Rancho La Brea tar pits. 

Figure 3 - Size comparison between man and Smilodon fatalis
who weighed as much as three or four men. Photo courtesy of

       Scientists believe that Smilodon fatalis was an ambush predator that preyed on large, slow moving herbivores such as bison, camels, ground sloths, horses, and mastodons. It was not adapted for preying on smaller animals. It most likely inhabited forests or heavy bush which provided cover for ambushing its prey. The large amount of Smilodon fatalis bone material recovered from the tar pits indicates that the animals were scavenging for other animals there. Based on the skeletal diseases, broken teeth and fractured bones found in Smilodon fatalis specimens from the tar pits, some scientists conclude that the damage was caused by trauma associated with preying on much larger mammals that could weigh as much as a one ton bison.

       Smilodon fatalis was unable to adapt to the post-Ice Age environment and it went extinct at the end of the Ice Age along with many of the large mammals that it preyed on...

Now, what about the American mountain lion?
     The American mountain lion, also called the cougar, puma, panther, or catamount, is a highly efficient stalk-and-ambush predator. The mountain lion's name is a misnomer since its habitat is quite diverse and not limited to just mountains. They can be found on the desert, as well as the plains. The American mountain lion has the greatest habitat range of any large terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere, spanning from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes of South America. It is the second heaviest cat in the western hemisphere, behind the jaguar.    
Figure 4 and 5 (right) - The majestic mountain lion.

Adult lions stand 24 to 35 inches at the shoulders and
from head to tail range from 4.9 to 9 feet. Adult
males weigh between 115 to 220 lbs. Photos
courtesy of National Geographic and

      Mountain lions possibly migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia approximately 8.5 to 8 million years ago. The mountain lion is a solitary, nocturnal animal who pursues a wide range of prey from insects up to ungulates weighing over 1000 lbs.The mountain lion's lean and wiry physique gives it great leaping and short-sprint capabilities. The mountain lion can leap vertically 18 feet in one bound and jump horizontally 40 to 45 feet.  The 
mountain lion's top running speed is between 40 to 50 miles per hour. Evolution has been kind to the mountain lion, creating the near-perfect predator.

Figure 6. Photo courtesy of  
      In addition to its physical strength and performance, the mountain lion has extraordinary senses.  The mountain lion uses its finely-tuned sense of smell to locate prey within an area. Once the prey is located, the mountain lion can move its small rounded ears together or independently to isolate the direction of sound. The mountain lion can also open its eye pupils three times wider than a human, letting in much more light for nocturnal conditions. Mountain lions have demonstrated a heightened sensitivity to movement and many biologists believe that movement triggers attack, which answers why most of its natural prey actually freezes in the presence of a mountain lion, hoping it will not see them or just go away.
So, which one of these two predators did I use in Shadows on the TrailSorry, you will just have to just read the book and find out! Which predator would you have used and why?  

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