Nimravids really need a better name than "false sabercats." The title makes them sound illegitimate, or like impostors, when the truth is that these cat-like, saberfanged carnivores were sinking their ludicrously-long canines into prey long before the ancestors of Smilodon started prowling around. The fossil records of Europe and North America have made this abundantly clear through dozens of beautiful fossils, but what about Asia? Paleontologists have known nimravids were there, but the beasts have only been represented by meager fragments. A nearly-complete skull found in China has changed that.

The cranium, found in China's Maoming Basin, is the first ever found in Asia. Paleontologist Alexander Averianov and colleagues have named it Maofelis in honor of where it was dug up. Compared to its relatives, though, Maofelis was only just beginning to be a sabertooth. The predator's fangs were not quite so flattened or blade-like as others of its kind, and the carnivore probably didn't have as wide a gape as more specialized sabertooths.

The archaic nature of Maofelis, the paleontologists report, might mean that nimravids got their start in Asia. Maybe Maofelis represents the early days of a radiation that eventually spread through the woodlands of Europe and North America. Then again, the age of Maofelis is imprecise. At 40 to 35 million years old it could be one of the oldest nimravids or Maofelis might have existed at the same time as its relatives in North America, and the rest of the records from Asia are little more than scraps. Either way, though, Maoming's cat-mimic shows that the fearsome nimravids definitely prowled Asia, and researchers are just beginning to uncover their long and fearsome history on the continent.


The skull of Maofelis. From Averianov et al., 2016.

Fossil Facts

Name: Maofelis cantonensis

Meaning: Maofelis means "Maoming Basin cat", while cantonensis comes from an older name for Guangzhou City where the specimen is kept at Sun Yat-sen University.

Age: Around 40 to 35 million years old.

Where in the world?: Guangdong Province, China.

What sort of critter?: A sabertoothed mammal called a nimravid.

Size: The skull is about seven and a half inches long.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A complete cranium.


Averianov, A., Obraztsova, E., Danilov, I., Skutschas, P. Jin, J. 2016. First nimravid skull from Asia. Scientific Reports. doi: 10.1038/srep25812