Jaw function in Smilodon Fatalis: A reevaluation of the canine shear-bite and a proposal for a new forelimb-powered class 1 lever model

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Abstract

The jaw function of Smilodon fatalis has long been a source of debate. Although modern-day lions subdue large prey through the use of a suffocating throat bite, the dramatically elongated maxillary canines of S. fatalis suggest an alternative bite mechanism. The current literature favors a "canine shear-bite," in which the depression of the cranium by the ventral neck flexors assists the mandibular adductors in closing the jaws. Although the model makes intuitive sense and appears to be supported by scientific data, the mechanical feasibility of "neck-powered" biting has not been experimentally demonstrated. In the present study, the computer-assisted manipulation of digitized images of a high-quality replica of an S. fatalis neck and skull shows that a rotation of the cranium by the ventral neck flexors will not result in jaw closure. Instead, the cranium and mandible rotate ventrally together (at the atlantooccipital joint), and the jaws remain in an open configuration. The only manner by which rotation of the cranium can simultaneously result in jaw closure is by an anterior rotation at the temporomandibular joint. Based on this finding, the author proposes a new Class 1 lever mechanism for S. fatalis jaw function. In this model, the mandible is immobilized against the neck of the prey and a dorsally directed force from the extension of the forelimbs rotates the cranium anteriorly at the temporomandibular joint. The maxillary canines pierce the prey's neck and assist in clamping the ventral neck structures. The model is based on a maximum gape angle of approximately 90° and incorporates a secondary virtual point of rotation located slightly anteroventral to the temporomandibular joint. The Class 1 Lever Model is mechanically feasible, consistent with current data on S. fatalis anatomy and ecology, and may provide a basis for similar studies on other fossil taxa.

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Brown, J. G. (2014). Jaw function in Smilodon Fatalis: A reevaluation of the canine shear-bite and a proposal for a new forelimb-powered class 1 lever model. PLoS ONE, 9(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0107456

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