Ice Age saber-tooth cats and dire wolves had high incidence of joint disease

A recent research study, published on July 12, 2023, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Hugo Schmökel and his colleagues from Evidensia Academy in Sweden, reveals a surprising finding about Ice Age saber-tooth cats and dire wolves. These ancient predators, which lived approximately 55,000 to 12,000 years ago, had a high occurrence of bone disease in their joints.

Osteochondrosis, a bone disease known to affect humans and various domesticated species, has rarely been documented in wild animals. However, this study delves into the occurrence of this disease in the fossilized limb bones of saber-tooth cats (Smilodon fatalis) and dire wolves (Aenocyon dirus) from the Late Pleistocene era.

The researchers meticulously examined more than 1,000 limb bones from saber-tooth cats and over 500 limb bones from dire wolves, all originating from the La Brea Tar Pits. Through their analysis, they discovered numerous small defects in the bones, indicating the presence of osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD), a specific manifestation of bone disease. The shoulder and knee joints displayed the highest incidence of these defects, affecting up to 7% of the bones examined, a significantly higher rate compared to modern species.

It is important to note that this study is limited to isolated bones from a single fossil site. Therefore, further investigation across various fossil locations might unveil more information about the prevalence of this disease and provide insights into the lives of these extinct animals.

Several questions remain unanswered. For instance, it is unclear whether these joint issues would have impaired the hunting capabilities of these predators. Additionally, since OCD commonly occurs in modern inbred domestic dogs, the high occurrence of this disease in the fossil animals could potentially indicate declining populations as these ancient species approached extinction. Further research is necessary to unravel the full implications of these findings.

Detail from a 1911 illustration of a saber-toothed cat in the La Brea Tar Pits. Credit: Robert Bruce Horsfall & Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, CC-BY 4.0 (

The authors of the study also highlight the significance of their findings in expanding our knowledge of paleopathology in Smilodon and dire wolves. The remarkable abundance of samples available at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum has facilitated this valuable research. By combining the expertise of paleontologists and veterinarians, the study establishes a connection between these ancient predators and the domestic cats and dogs we encounter in our daily lives.

This collaborative effort emphasizes that despite the substantial differences in time and circumstances, these extinct creatures faced similar health issues as our cherished pets. It underscores the shared nature of certain ailments and reinforces the notion that even ancient species, enduring harsh conditions and ultimately going extinct, experienced common health conditions with animals that have become integral parts of our households today.

Source: Public Library of Science

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