Florida’s Story
 . . . Mysterious Land of Ancient Critters

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Paleo-Animals

 

In the gray rainy afternoon, a northwester urged the waves against the beach. The water was dirty with sand and tiny broken bits of shell. I wiped the light drizzle out of my eyes with the back of my hand and wandered the tide-line. There was a dark object in the wave's wash, still partially covered by sand. I instantly knew what it was. My hand trembled as I lifted it. After cleaning the sand off on my jeans. I looked down at the tooth of a Saber-toothed cat. It was from the left lower jaw, a third premolar.

American Smilodon or Saber-toothed Cat

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The odd thing was, that this was the tooth from a young adult. The edge on the fossil tooth was still sharp, not badly worn. It was only slightly smaller than the teeth I have seen in museums. Were male and female saber-toothed cats different sizes? Were the females slightly smaller?

I saw his tawny coat in the distance. He lay on his right side, panting beneath the shade of a scrub oak. From here the dry prairie extended to the horizon in every direction. Mostly grass, punctuated by a few splashes of yellow and blue flowers, the savannah was broken by dark patches of low, tangled scrub made up of palmetto and scrub oak. The flowers of Partridge-pea and Skull cap suggested summer.

A buzz of flies pestered his muzzle. He pawed them away and lifted his great head surveying the prairie through fading dull eyes. Only then could you notice that his right saber-tooth was broken off about two inches down from his lip. His big tongue licked out sending the flies buzzing away again. It was hot. The stretching grassland showed no hint of water. The sun-scorched pale-blue sky crushed down like a lid. Not a breath of air. To the north, a flight of condors joined black vultures in climbing the thermal up-drafts.

The cat's big head collapsed back of its own weight. His skin hung across his ribs and fell into the empty folds of his stomach. He sneezed into the dust.

Once he had hunted as a part of a strong, self-assured pride. A few of them would trot toward a herd of horses or paleo-llama.

The herd would begin to move nervously, slowly at first and then at a trot. The other saber-toothed cats lie waiting ahead, hidden in the yellow grass, like a living trap.

Their wide-open jaws sprung suddenly. The great dagger-like canines, slashing through arteries and wind-pipe, tore out the throat of a horse in the beat of a hoof-fall.

As time went on, younger animals took over the pride. The old male and his mate found it more comfortable hunting on their own. They were careful to avoid lion prides and thieving wolves.

They hunted the edges of the wide open prairies concentrating mostly on paleo-llama. The male llamas climbed the nearest hill in order to survey the landscape. They let out a sharp whistle, alerting the herd, when they saw cats stalking. The old couple missed in the hunt as often as they were successful.

Then she died. He stood over her out-stretched body for a day and a night, until hunger drove him off. Now he was on his own.

It had been a lightning error, the misjudgment of a split second as the horse's hoof snapped his tooth. After that he could only hunt rats and rabbits - anything small enough to subdue. Once he had even tried to gnaw open the shell of a gopher tortoise. He'd gotten nowhere. Rats and lizards were fast for such slim fare. They wore him out. Now, he just lay there, in the heat, panting and pawing away the flies.


In my imagination, I saw the persistent image of an old male. I blinked the rain out of my eyes. Absent-mindedly running my tongue along my lips, tasting the salt spray, my vision turned inward


In the image above a saber-toothed cat hunts bison latifrons.