The saber-toothed cat of the North Sea

Somewhere around the Dutch coast, a mammoth herd, led by an experienced matriarch strolls along a trail on the cold, dry and treeless steppe – the mammoth steppe – typified by tall, tough grasses and Artemisia. The impressive herd numbers about thirty animals, reflecting several generations, young and old, trailing each other on their way to the river (the paleo-Meuse) for a drink. Meanwhile, far off in the background, we notice a stampeding herd of large steppe buffaloes, chased by a pack of lions. Some hyenas are watching the scene with interest from their hideout in the tall, dry grass, eagerly hoping for some leftovers from the anticipated feast. Also hidden by the tall grass, another, strange and unknown predator observes the panorama – a saber-toothed cat. The head of the animal looks fierce. Incredibly long, flattened canines, sharp as daggers, are exposed when this Homotherium opens its mouth…

This drama is set in the Netherlands, some 28,000 years ago and it is quite plausible that such a scenario happened in the last part of the ice ages of the Pleistocene epoch.

The North Sea is being fished intensively today and Dutch fishermen not only collect flatfish like sole and plaice, living on the sea floor. They also retrieve the weirdest objects – fragments of shipwrecks from days gone by or bombs from World War II, jettisoned by the bombers in the dark days of the previous century. But, the most intriguing discoveries are fossil remains from animals that lived here, in the not-so-distant past, in a period when the world looked very different from today and when animals grazed on what is now the bottom of the North Sea.

A couple of months ago, we (together with Remie Bakker) published a book on a saber-toothed cat mandible, trawled from the seabed (The Saber-Toothed Cat of the North Sea published by Uitgeverij DrukWare). The book is about an ice age predator that is sure to capture the imagination – the saber-toothed cat. It is an extinct felid whose remains are very rarely found in Europe. Until recently, remains of the saber-toothed cat Homotherium in the region of the Netherlands were only known with dates of about one to two million years ago.

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