Inferences concerning the lives of extinct animals are difficult to obtain from the fossil record. Here we present a novel approach to the study of extinct carnivores, using a comparison between fossil records (n=3324) found in Late Pleistocene tar seeps at Rancho La Brea in North America and counts (n=4491) from playback experiments used to estimate carnivore abundance in Africa. Playbacks and tar seep deposits represent competitive, potentially dangerous encounters where multiple predators are lured by dying herbivores. Consequently, in both records predatory mammals and birds far outnumber herbivores. In playbacks, two large social species, lions, Panthera leo, and spotted hyenas, Crocuta crocuta, actively moved towards the sounds of distressed prey and made up 84 per cent of individuals attending. Small social species (jackals) were next most common and solitary species of all sizes were rare. In the La Brea record, two species dominated, the presumably social dire wolf Canis dirus (51%), and the sabretooth cat Smilodon fatalis (33%). As in the playbacks, a smaller social canid, the coyote Canis latrans, was third most common (8%), and known solitary species were rare (<4%). The predominance of Smilodon and other striking similarities between playbacks and the fossil record support the conclusion that Smilodon was social
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