London: How did prehistoric sabretoothed cats cope with their oversized teeth? Well, the mystery has been solved in part by a new analysis of the cats` jaws.
To impale prey with these impressive weapons, the famous sabretoothed cats must have opened their mouths wider than any modern big cat, but it was unclear if their jaw muscles were strong enough to do it.
Now, a new study, led by Per Christiansen, from Aalborg University in Denmark, has revealed that the cats` jaw muscles evolved into a specialised pattern, which allowed them to open their mouths so wide.
Christiansen took a novel approach to studying the extinct predators by creating a complex model of how their jaws moved.
Beautifully preserved skeletons of the most recently extinct sabretoothed cat, Smilodon, have been uncovered in tar pits in the US, offering the researcher plenty of fossilised remains to work with.
These fearsome-looking cats - the biggest of which would have hunted very large prey, including buffaloes, horses and extinct giant ground sloths - had a relatively weak bite force compared to their modern feline relatives, previous studies have revealed.
But this is not surprising, according to Dr Christiansen. He has found the cats must have had remarkable jaw muscles to close their mouths with any force at all.
"Smilodon could open its mouth wider than any modern cat," explained Dr Christiansen, "because if you have big teeth, you have to open your mouth at a very high angle to get anything in your mouth."
Over the years, scientists have debated what the now extinct cats used their enormous teeth for, with some even suggesting the teeth were ornaments that males used to attract mates.
But the consensus is now that the teeth, which measured up to 20cm, delivered final, fatal stabs to already subdued prey.
Bulkier and more muscular than most modern cats, Smilodon would have brought large animals down with its forelimbs.
"They pounced on their prey, wrestled it to the ground and twisted the neck with massive forelimbs," the BBC quoted Dr Christiansen as saying.
Details are reported in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.