Smilodon was first named scientifically in 1842 by the Danish scientist Peter Wilhelm Lund, who spent much of his life studying prehistoric mammal fossils in South America. However, Smilodon is best known from the tar pits of Rancho La Brea, California, which were studied by American paleontologists from 1913 onwards.
The natural seeps of heavy oil at Rancho La Brea formed deep lakes, which were covered with twigs and leaves during the Pleistocene. This treacherous surface trapped unsuspecting animals such as elephants and horses. These struggling mammals attracted predators, including Smilodon fatalis, which found themselves trapped as well. As a result, thousands of Smilodon skeletons have been found preserved in the tar pits.
Smilodon is not a tiger, as is sometimes assumed, and it isn’t the only sabre-toothed cat. However, it is the best known and largest of its kind. The large canine teeth mean that Smilodon needed a very wide gape for an effective bite. This was made possible by a modified jaw joint. The knife-like canine teeth of Smilodon are actually rather blunt, so they probably were not used for puncturing skin to kill prey swiftly. Instead, they likely used the teeth to grasp loose skin and slowly tear out a chunk of flesh. The Smilodon could then wait patiently for its hapless prey to bleed to death from the wound. Its short legs also suggest that it was an ambush hunter, rather than actively chasing down its prey.