- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2000

A scientist with a sense of humor must have affixed the Latin name Smilodon fatalis to the great saber-toothed cat that roamed the North American plains for nearly 2 million years.

That was quite a smile, and it was quite fatal, as we learn from the Discovery Channel's production of "Sabretooth," which airs at 9 p.m. Monday.

Blessings on the Discovery Channel for this one, which not only uses computer graphics and sophisticated engineering to re-create the saber-toothed tiger, but also shows how science has become a matter of overlapping disciplines, each sharing knowledge and adding to the sum of the parts.

The search for the saber-tooth begins with paleontologist Larry Martin of the University of Kansas and forensics specialist Virginia Naples of Northern Illinois University, both of whom are fascinated by the big cats. They are the muddy-hands-in-the-ground crew that finds and studies actual fossils.

Thanks to the tar pits at La Brea Ranch in Los Angeles — "la brea" is Spanish for tar — there are plenty of fossils to study. In fact, the laboratory there holds 166,000 pieces from at least 2,200 cats. Most likely they saw prey struggling in the asphalt and leaped in to consume an easy meal — only to be consumed themselves by the unrelenting grip of the tar.

An unsung-heroes award should go to the laboratory staff, which spends its days scraping hardened goop off the specimens and cataloging them. A special word of praise must go to Chris Shaw, who manages the collection and appears to have an encyclopedic knowledge of its contents.

Because of the lavish supply of fossils, much is known about Smiley, but details still are lacking. What color was the cat? Was it spotted or tabby, as many cats are today? Was it solitary, like the tiger, or social, like the lion?

And just how did it use those 7-inch-long daggers to kill its prey?

To answer at least one of these questions, Mr. Martin enlists mechanical engineer Todd Weaver, an attractive, well-spoken man who decided to build a metal replica of Smiley's head and attach it to a digger to make it move in a lifelike fashion. Appropriately, the digger is a Bobcat.

Mr. Weaver has devoted several years of unpaid effort to the project. Why? He, too, is fascinated by saber-toothed cats. "Doing a crazy thing occasionally is fun, and delivering people with the unexpected can be even more fun," he says.

(I'll let you in on a secret: Scientists do science because it is fun. Too many teachers manage to hide that piece of information.)

One problem is in capable hands, but other questions remain. Mr. Martin turns to Mauricio Anton, an anatomical illustrator who uses information from living animals to re-create those long vanished. Mr. Anton, in turn, calls upon the relatively new field of computer animation.

The initial result is a stick figure that presents some surprises even in its most basic form. Smiley moves more like a bear than a cat. He's better equipped to pounce from ambush than he is to run down game. Further research from different sources confirms this first impression. When two groups of experts arrive at the same conclusion from different approaches, that conclusion is likely to be correct.

One particularly striking sequence uses the computer to begin with the skeletal head, neck and shoulder of Smiley, then adds layers of muscle, using information from marks on the bones, until a three-dimensional head appears.

Again relying on the computer, illustrators place Smiley in his environment. It is not the desert city of Los Angeles of today, but rather a damper, warmer, more heavily vegetated place where camels, horses, buffalo one-fifth larger than today's version and even mastodons roam. That would have been a walking smorgasbord for something as powerful and well-armed with teeth as a saber-toothed tiger.

Returning to the question of how Smiley used those formidable dentures, Mr. Weaver recruits professor Holliston L. Riviere of the Oregon Health Sciences University and professor Blaire Van Valkenberg of the University of California at Los Angeles, who contribute information on the strength necessary to operate those massive teeth.

Eventually, all the information is pooled. After four years of research and consultation, Mr. Weaver finishes his Bobcat-operated Smiley. The owners of the Star B Ranch, who raise buffalo for market, contribute a slaughtered animal for experimentation. Interested scientists from several disciplines gather at the ranch to watch.

As Miss Naples risks her fingers to position the metal teeth for a convincing bite, the Bobcat operator opens and curls the jaws. Chomp. The scientists have at least one answer. Smiley was more than able to slice through the windpipe and arteries of its prey with one bite.

Again the producers of "Sabretooth" turn to computer graphics, to show us how Smiley could have stalked and, pouncing, killed his prey. Backed by the information we have seen developed, it is a convincing segment.

Of course, questions remain. Perhaps the most perplexing: What eliminated such an efficient predator? Could it have been man, who arrived in North America about 3,000 years before Smiley disappeared? Or was it the change in climate that stripped the land of so much vegetation, perhaps killing off the large grass-eaters that were the saber-tooth's prey?

This is one hour of fascinating science. Plunk the youngsters in front of the set and join them. A program like this is an excellent reason to own a television.

WHAT: "Sabretooth"WHERE: Discovery ChannelWHEN: Monday at 9 p.m. and Tuesday at 1 a.m.

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