Walking With Beasts BBC Part05 Sabre Tooth
For 40 million years the plains of|South America have been ruled by
an awesome group of predators
The aptly named terror birds.
But recently all this has changed.
A new breed of killer has arrived|one fierce enough to terrorise the
Smilodon, the f abled sabre tooth.
The most powerful big cat of all time.
There is no such thing as|a sabre tooth tiger.
The correct name for these beasts is|sabre tooth cats and there have
been many different species.
The largest, at over 300kgs,|is this one, Smilodon,
which means ''knife tooth''.
Originally from North America|they came to South America two
million years ago.
The balance of life here changed as|they took over the role
of top predators.
They live in tightly knit clans and|this is the story of three dramatic
months in the life of one particular|group led by a seven year old male
called Half Tooth.
Right from the beginning|Half Tooth has problems.
Recently a pair of|rival males have appeared.
And they want Half Tooth's crown.
Half Tooth's territory spans several|hundred square kilometres of
grassland on one of the strangest|continents on earth.
Since splitting from Antarctica|30 million years ago,
South America has been isolated from|the rest of the world and,
as a result, its animals are unique.
Oddities thrive here,|like Deodicurus,
a spiky-tailed relative of|the armadillo the size of a car.
Even the large herds of|herbivores are exotic.
These Macrauchenia are unrelated|to any modern mammal.
And then of course there are|the native predators,
the flightless terror birds.
These are three metres tall and|called Phorusrhacos.
But the isolation of these animals|came to an end when the movement
of the South American continent caused|it to collide with North America.
Across a land bridge came new groups|of mammals to colonise
this exotic world.
Life here would never be the same again.
Cats were among those colonists.
No cat had ever set foot in South|America before but now sabre
tooths ruled the grasslands.
Half Tooth took over this clan|three years ago,
breaking one sabre in the process.
The group is now made up of|four adult females and
All the youngsters are Half Tooth's.
During his reign, Half Tooth has seen|of many challenges from rival males.
But none as serious as this one.
Two rival males have wandered deep|into Half Tooth's territory.
As usual he is quick to respond.
But these are brothers and|they are working together.
Even by Smilodon standards|Half Tooth is a very large
male but he has never before f aced|two opponents at once.
The odds this time are|stacked against him.
The females read the signals and|start to retreat.
Their only concern is to|protect their offspring.
These fights can be brutal and|Half Tooth has the most to
lose - not only control of the clan|but possibly his life.
No match for the brothers,|Half Tooth is quick to back down.
He has at least escaped serious injury|but his problems are just
beginning. Life for a lone male is|a grim battle for survival.
Half Tooth hasn't had to feed himself|for three years because it was
the females in the clan|that did the hunting.
Outcast from the rich grasslands|now controlled by the brothers
he heads into the scrub forest|on the edges of his old territory
where he must learn|to scrape out a living.
With many of the creatures here|he stands no chance.
Doedicurus, for instance,|are not only well armoured,
they are huge.
These are ancient relatives of|the armadillo yet they weigh
almost 300 times as much.
Their spiked tail clubs alone|can weigh 40 kilos, as much as
Although fearsome defensive weapons|the males mostly use their
tails on each other,
to batter rivals into submission|during hormone fuelled
jousts for a mate.
The loser ends up with more than|just his pride dented.
ln the clan, tensions are running high.|The females will not accept the
brothers while they still have young.
Defeating Half Tooth was only|part of the battle.
lf the brothers are to gain authority|over the clan they'll have to
kill the cubs.
Meanwhile, Half Tooth has pushed deeper|into the scrub forest
in search of food.
lf anything his task is g|etting more difficult.
The dense undergrowth harbours|another colossus, a sloth.
But this is no ordinary sloth.
This is Megatherium,|a giant ground sloth.
lt has huge claws, is six metres from|nose to tail and weighs more than
A very different beast from|its distant relatives,
the gentle tree sloths.
Half Tooth moves cautiously.
The sloth also boasts|impressive defences.
Small bones beneath his skin|act like chain mail.
Adults are virtually indestructible.
Half Tooth wisely gives|them a wide berth.
Weeks pass and the wet season|is in full swing.
The females have done their best|but only two of Half Tooth's
cubs survive and the brothers|are a constant danger.
They spend much of their time|patrolling their new territory,
spraying the boundaries with scent|as a warning to other males.
They will not attack the cubs while|the mother is present but
she must abandon them to go hunting.
This is when they are most at risk|and so this mother protects them
by hiding them in the dense undergrowth.
While the females are absent,|the brothers are spotted dangerously
close to the hiding place.
The cubs' lives hang by a thread.
Now their only hope is|to remain motionless.
Out on the plains there are large|herds of Macrauchenia.
Unique to South America, this species is|the last of their kind.
They are prime targets for Smilodon.
Macrauchenia are f ast, wary animals|and getting close enough to kill
one takes endless patience.
The females hunt together as a pack|inching forward to set the trap.
They have been closing in on this herd|for two hours now.
Gradually they f an out with the lead|female moving wide,
trying to encircle their pray.
Smilodon are powerful killers and|able to accelerate explosively
but they are not built for long chases
Unless they get close,|they don't stand a chance.
One f alse move and they will|have to start all over again.
The lead female drives the herd|towards the other females.
Having chosen their target,|the cats close in.
Macrauchenia have outstanding|manoeuvrability.
The victim jinks,|completely wrong-footing her pursuer.
But that's why Smilodon hunt in groups.
A second cat brings her down.
Surprisingly, as the cats fight to|restrain their prey,
they do not use their inf amous teeth|in case they break them.
First they work together to pin down|the struggling animal under
the weight of their bodies.
Only when the prey is totally subdued|are the f amous sabres drawn.
They are extraordinarily precise and|accurate tools for killing.
Their teeth simultaneously sever|the blood supply and strangle
One bite and the prey is dead.
But these are the original|double-edged swords.
The lethal 20cm sabres are|actually quite fragile.
They cannot bite into bone and|so Smilodon can only eat
the fleshier parts of a carcass.
This is very wasteful.
Something that hasn't gone unnoticed by|other carnivores on the grasslands.
The terror birds are|supreme opportunists.
They may have been replaced as|top predators but they have
quickly found new ways of surviving,|thanks to the cats.
Eventually the Smilodon have eaten|as much as their sabres
will allow them.
They live the kill for|the birds to pick over.
South America is not the only place|terror birds are doing well.
Once the land bridge opened to|North America they were
one of the few creatures|to spread north successfully.
While these terror birds eat Smilodon's|leftovers,
their cousins are running riot|in Texas and Florida.
They only died out just before|modern humans appeared.
After the hunt, the mother returns|to where she hid the cubs
as she has done several|times over the last weeks.
She calls to them but|her calls go unanswered.
Half Tooth is soon spotted nearby|roaming on the fringes of
a territory|that used to be his own.
But where he once sprayed,|he can clearly smell the scent
of the brothers.
That is not the only signal|they have left.
With the death of his cubs|his last tie with the group
has been severed.
The take-over is complete.
Sighting of Half Tooth have started|to become rare and it is clear
from his physical condition|he is not thriving in the scrub forest.
lt is dawn and Half Tooth is exploiting|his sensitive vision to hunt
in the low light.
Male Macrauchenia live separately from|the herds and often wander into
the scrub forest to browse,
using their long noses to|strip fresh leaves.
Half Tooth waits and allows|the Macrauchenia to wander
There must be no mistakes this time.
But a giant ground sloth is about|to ruin everything.
As he crashes through the undergrowth,|Half Tooth's quarry starts
lt's now or never
Half Tooth is too weak to follow.
The longer he goes without a kill|the smaller his chance
of making one.
lncreasingly desperate,|he is seen still patrolling
the same area later that morning.
He spots a Macrauchenia mother and|young close to the forest edge.
They have wandered away from|the main herd.
Maybe this time.
With a lightening strike of|its massive beak and claws,
a terror bird comes|from nowhere to kill the youngster.
But all is not lost for Half Tooth.|He seizes his chance.
Scavenging is now his best hope.
But after finishing this skill Half|Tooth disappeared from this scrub forest
Not f ar away, the brothers have|completely usurped Half Tooth.
With the last of the cubs dead|the clan has now accepted them
The remaining adolescents are tolerated|by the brothers because
they are female and will soon|be old enough to mate.
And with no cubs to suckle,|the older females come into heat again.
Killing Half Tooth's cubs was not|just a pointless act of violence.
With the cubs out of the way the clan|can now concentrate on raising
the brothers' offspring and passing|their genes onto the next generation.
All in all, the clan is|returning to normal.
The young females practice|their hunting skills.
Although the Deodicurus|they have picked on has little time
for their games.
The rainy season has come and gone|and Half Tooth has not been
seen for weeks.
His old clan, however|is very much in evidence.
They have been making a kill every|few days and today they're once
again feeding well.
As usual, the terror birds|are not f ar away.
But on this occasion there is|another scavenger, a Megatherium.
They might be herbivores but they will|occasionally go for carrion to
supplement their diet.
And when they do,|nothing gets in their way.
One of the brothers has been killed.
The rest of the Smilodon quickly|abandon the kill to the giant.
ln the blink of an eye the Megatherium|has changed everything for
Now there's only one brother left.
Within days Half Tooth|suddenly reappears.
He must have been closely monitoring|his old territory.
And so sensitive is the sense of|smell in cats that he can tell
the identity and even the health|of a male who has left his scent.
ln this case the marks are easy to|interpret - where there were once
two males, now there is only one.
Within the clan, things are going|badly for the remaining male.
He was not the dominant of the|two brothers and the females appear
to have become unsettled again.
But it is not the females that|the lone brother is worried about.
lt is only a matter of time before|other males come looking for trouble.
He continues to patrol his territory|but a challenge will come sooner
than the brother expects.
Half Tooth is back|Encouraged by the signals,
he is wasting no time in|trying to reclaim the clan.
A fresh scent trail leads him on.
Three months after losing|to the brothers,
Half Tooth is once again about|to fight for this territory.
The odds this time have evened up.
The fight is brief and brutal|but Half Tooth triumphs.
The brother is defeated|and f atally injured.
Unlike Half Tooth|this cat will get no second chance.
The short, violent reign of|the brothers is over.
A year later finds Half Tooth surrounded|by new arrivals of his own.
He is king of the grasslands again.
Smilodon were very successful predators|and survived up until as
recently as 10,000 years ago.
But eventually the world around|them changed too much.
The climate became cooler and drier|the larger prey they specialised
in killing disappeared.
The sabre tooth world came to an end.
ln our final episode things|will get much
much colder as we visit our ancestors|in an ice age 30,000 years ago.
lt was the toughest of times and|gave rise to one of the most
awesome mammals of all|- the mammoths.
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