The fossilized remains of the Smilodon populator make its very distant cousins, our modern-day tiger, seem like a dehydrated cat. The predator's fangs were around 30 centimeters long and jutted out of a mouth that could open to a 90-degree angle. It seems its method of killing prey was to attack the stomach or neck artery of its victim and then wait until it bled to death before eating it.
The Smilodon populator, whose dimensions matched those of a lion, became extinct 11,000 years ago. In different parts of America over a million bones of this unique predator and its immediate relatives have been found over the years. The structure of its teeth and its short tail - which would not effectively stabilize the body during a chase - led researchers to conclude the Smilodon fed on relatively slow animals, with thick skins that its fangs were able to penetrate, such as bison, mammoths or even sloths.
The Smilodon is a descendant of the sabre-tooth family - an offshoot that did not survive into modern times of the feline family, which includes among others, leopards, lions and wild and domesticated cats. Each of them had a shared parentage that, according to fossil studies, lived on earth as far back as 60 million years ago.
Cats, as we know them today, evolved over the last 10-15 million years. This internal division of the family sparked numerous disagreements among scientists. Today it is accepted to define four to eight different species within this family, include 36 different varieties. Animals from the feline family evolved in most areas of the world, but until the arrival of domesticated cats, they were absent from Australia, Madagascar and numerous islands.
Whether they are Bengali tigers that can reach a weight of 250 kilograms or smaller varieties, with a weight of somewhere around three kilograms, most members of the feline family - which some divide into big felines and small felines - have similar traits.
All cats are predators and carnivores able to catch and kill animals. They are known as hyper-carnivores because their protein consumption is especially high relative to other predators. Cats are very fast moving animals. They all move on their tiptoes and extend their claws only when necessary, which imbues them with a very stylized walk.
Their jaw muscles are very strong and enable them to have a powerful bite. Most cats are good at climbing and they have a long tail in proportion to their body, which helps them to steady themselves and make sharp turns during a - usually short - chase after prey. Their vision is highly developed and some have developed night vision capabilities.
As territorial animals, most live alone, except during the period they are in heat. However, they are social animals that communicate via a complex system of visual and vocal signals and scents.
The feline species in Israel include wild cats, swamp cats, sand cats, desert cats and three subspecies of leopards. In the distant past, there were also lions in the region. Another species, the cheetah was last seen in Israel in the 1950s.
Of the ten species that belong to the feline family, approximately one third face extinction. The species of feline thriving best in the world and in Israel is of course the house cat. However, researchers are divided on whether or not the 37 species in that family can indeed be defined as a separate species.
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