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Saber-toothed predators are strong and robust, with a strengthened neck which they use to power killing strikes on their prey. To me, this profile resembles such as oxen, horses, and other such animals, which are useful as draught animals due to their strong bodies and necks allowing them to pull great loads. Would this logic mean that a saber-toothed predator would also be similarly useful in the role of a draught animal, or is there some issue specific to saber-toothed predators that makes them worse at this role? Ignore any concerns regarding food: Just focus on their ability to pull loads. The predator is specifically a carnivoran mammal

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    $\begingroup$ Given that dog-sleds exist, I don't think anyone's suspension of disbelief would be lost. $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Commented Mar 24 at 1:36

7 Answers 7

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Probably Not

Peak output is one thing, whereas high, ongoing output is another.

The classic example is a powerlifter or strongman being able to pick up extremely heavy weights and carry them, but being 'outcompeted' (e.g. moving more total weight) by someone like a farmer who picks up something not as heavy but can do it all day.

Most predators have very high peak strength - that is they are extremely strong for short periods of time, which is usually enough to pounce, land a killing blow and hold onto their meal whilst it thrashes around and dies.

They generally aren't that great at sustained effort over long periods of time. Which is what you need for a draught animal. Think about cheetahs - fastest top-speed in the animal kingdom, but after 30 seconds, they are spent.

However, I did say generally as there is an elephant in the room - or rather wolves/dogs - which are good at sustained effort over a long period of time - hence you get wolves running down their prey and evolved from that - sled dogs.

So in short - although there are many blanks about sabre tooth tigers and how they lived/hunted - they were likely to be like most feline predators - which rely on a short burst of high-intensity effort, which means that whilst they could pull a heavy load, being able to pull it for long periods of time - not really.

However, if you have something like a direwolf or sabre tooth wolf or other canid, that is more believable.

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    $\begingroup$ @DaleM some prey in some parts of the world. The range of humans is down to their ability to use tools and adapt to a very wide range of prey that cannot simply be run down. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 24 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Humans' endurance is attributable to our ability to shed waste heat and carry supplies of extra water. Our endurance is rendered moot by animals with the ability to run faster and then hide. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Mar 25 at 4:27
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild : and animals' ability to run faster and then hide is rendered moot by our intelligence and our ability to coordinate many hunters so that one team moves in a long line making lots of noise, making the hiding animals run towards an ambush. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 25 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki - You would be surprised. A Bunny at full Tilt can reach 25-50 mph (apparently) but it can only do that for about a minute. You don't need to keep up with them completely, you just need to keep jogging, then they run again, then you keep jogging, and they run again... repeat until they are too exhausted to run anymore - then you have caught a rabbit. It might take several hours, but you would be surprised. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 25 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord Perhaps in an open well kept field. But there are just too many places for a rabbit to dash to where a human can not follow. They just need one good fence to go under or a line of brambles to slow you down, and they're gone for good. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 25 at 19:32
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No.

The answer is simply that members of the Felidae - of which family the sabretooth Smilodon is a member - are ambush predators, which are evolved to making short, high-speed pursuits of their prey, not the long pursuits that wolves and humans have evolved to perform.

This means that members of the Felidae family - no matter how strong - are not capable of prolonged exertion. Any cat might be able to pull a cart, but it would only be able to do so at either a relatively low speed that would not risk its exhaustion, or at a higher speed only over a short distance.

This analysis also says nothing about the potential trainability of a sabretooth. It is necessary for a draft animal to be trainable, and there is no evidence either for or against a sabretooth cat being sufficiently sociable to accept being used as a draft animal.

Lions - the most social of modern cats - have been used as draft animals, though that this video dates to the 1930s and no other such videos exist that I have been able to find suggests that their use in this capacity, at a walking pace, is a mere curiosity. I would expect no better from sabretooth cats.

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    $\begingroup$ Plus well, food! Your average horse or bullock or donkey etc is perfectly content to subsist on a relatively low cost/easy to access diet of grass and fodder etc. Whereas any carnivore large enough to be considered useful as a draft animal that can haul large weights? Is going to need regular, generous supplies of expensive, premium grade horse, bullock or donkey etc meat! You'd literally be stuck raising herds of perfectly good draft animals as feed for your - draft animal? $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Commented Mar 24 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Mon to be fair, the OP did handwave food issues away, because they're clearly aware that it is a serious flaw in the plan. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 24 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Starfish Prime. Me bad! Should have read to the end. Still a big problem to hand wave away though. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Commented Mar 24 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, cats can be tamed, but not really domesticated very well, at least not to the extent other animals with strong family structures are. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 25 at 5:12
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Another major issue is feeding the predator. A predatory animal large enough to pull a plow, cart, etc would be massive. A lion eats about 20 pounds a day. The average lion weighs 400 pounds. Oxen weigh up to 3000 pounds. Even if you go on the low end and scale it up, thats still 5x larger. That predator would need to eat 100 pounds of meat a day. Basically, one sheep, goat, pig, etc a day. And to have herbivores to feed it, you need to feed them. A sheep needs about .5 acre to graze. So, you would need 180 acres of farmland to have 360 - a year's worth - sheep. You are literally plowing the fields needed to feed the herbivores, just to turn around and feed them to the predator. It it just not sustainable.

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No animal makes a good draft animal... until they do.

The argument about horses, oxen, and dogs being good draft animals and large cats not is made moot by the point that the former examples have been selectively bred to be good draft animals. A horse's back is very different than thier wild ancestors because we've bred them to have stronger, more ridged backs so that we can ride them. A husky has way more pulling strength and endurance than a wolf of similar size because we've bred them to pull. Etc.

So, a wild sabre tooth tiger would make a bad draft animal because all wild animals make bad draft animals. However, if humans were to domesticate the sabretooth, then we would selectively breed them for tameness, endurance, and pulling strength until they are good draft animals. What we end up with would be as different from a wild sabertooth as a dog is from a wolf, but as long as there are some even remotely desirable traits to select for, domestication can make a huge difference in just a few generations.

But Big Cats are too dangerous to tame, right?

Several other answers have cited that sabretooths are untamable because they are big cats... but there is no way to prove the disposition of any extinct animal. We can guess, but there is little guarantee that we would be right. Let's take the horse and the zebra as an example, if you just look at thier size and shape, one would assume they are equally domesticable animals. Yet, many sources will tell you that zebras are way more dangerous and hard to train than a horse. This can lead to one of two conclusions. Either the horse started off as wild as the zebra, and several generations of selective breeding in captivity changed thier disposition enough for us to be able to use them as draft animals OR the horse started off way less temperamental than the zebra despite being so genetically similar.

Either way you can make a good case for the domestic sabretooth. If horses in captivity can change enough to go from zebra like aggression to our obedient steeds, then there is no reason to think a sabertooth can't make an equally big transition. But if you assume that the horse started off more chill than a zebra despite having so much in common, then why not use that logic to justify a sabertooth being equally easier to domesticate than a tiger. They are extinct; so. it's not like anyone can prove otherwise.

But why use Sabertooths at all?

People often criticize the use of predators as draft animals because of how hard they are to feed by citing required land area, calories, etc... but all of those factors completely ignore just how selective one's local habitat can be. For example, if your people live in a rocky jungle environment, then your people are going to be surrounded by by a wide range of trees and other inedible plants that can support local wildlife, but not humans. So, it could be trivial for the humans to fish or hunt for enough meat to feed both themselves and thier carnivorous companions.

The sticking point for survival here will be getting enough fruit, cereals, and vegetables to maintain a healthy diet for humans. Clearing even a small plot of land for agriculture will be a lot of work, and when you do the soil will tend to be poor, and require a lot of work to maintain. So, even though the big cat's food chain needs a lot more calories than a domestic ungulate, those calories are much easier for your people to source using pre-industrial technology. So, instead of your average peasant having a 2-5 acre farm like a typical pure agricultural society, they may each have a 1/2 acre or less of garden space, and large plots of wilderness to use as trapping and fishing grounds. With smaller farms and rougher soil, the use of a smaller draft animal with more burst energy like sabretooths also now makes more since because you are no longer using it for hours upon hours of dragging a plow, but instead, its most important job is to to drag a fallen log, pull up a large stone, move around compostable materials, and other odd jobs that take more burst energy like a large cat naturally favors. And when plow time comes, your plots are so small that getting just an hour of work out of the animal in a day is plenty because your humans are only trying to grow supplemental amounts of edible plants, not livestock feed and staple crops.

Also, since this is a jungle, you are not going to have any access to the big planes ungulates anyway. So, the choice to use the sabertooth may not have been considered against oxen and horses at all, but instead it won out against even sillier options like rabbits, monkeys, and chickens. IE: it does not need to be the best draft animal to be believable, just the best one available to use.

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The other 4 current answers make good claims based on the physical nature of the animals, so I'm going to go a different route.

Predators make bad draught animals because they are generally too smart, independent, and fear less than non-predators.

When a typical herbivore gets startled, they run away. They don't look around to see what happened, they just run for it like their lives depend on it, because it usually does. Some do fight back, but that's usually kicking with their back feet, or by circling around the weaker adults or younglings.

Even herbivores that circle make for bad pack animals because they don't take off running when startled. And startling animals is how most things get transported. You crack a whip, slap them on the rump, use spurs, or something else to make them run or walk.

But large predators don't run. They may jump, but they will turn on what startled them to see if they can kill it before it kills them. Tigers, lions, and other predators in the circus demonstrate this behavior, even as they've been bred in captivity to be more docile. And this is why I say they fear less, rather than are fearless. Predators aren't fearless, as they know that there are times when they need to run away to survive, but they don't fear for their lives as much as herbivores.

Of course, there are definitely herbivores/prey that fear less, and they make horrible pack animals, too. You don't see many hippos pulling carts. Zebra are well known to kill the lions attacking them, and they are just generally too high spirited to be in a harness.

Now, you might mentions canines as the exception to the rule. They are used as pack animals and used on dog sleds, but if you pay attention to the rigging on dog sleds, they are spaced out so they can't attack each other. And they definitely do that at times. If you watch dog sled racing, you'll see them nipping at each other quite a bit, and even viciously attack their teammates fairly regularly, and that's even with thousands of years of domestication, plus their inherent pack nature.

So, no, predators don't make good pack or draught animals because of their nature/attitude, regardless of their physical capabilities. Their brains just aren't wired in a way to make them docile enough to work hauling things around for humans who don't pose a significant physical risk to them.

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    $\begingroup$ Some apex predators are quite trainable. Dolphins and Hawks for example can be trained to do considerable amounts of work in a day, it is only thier body plans that prevent that work from being draft work. Furthermore, according to the big cat trainer at my local renaissance faire, they can be trained to fear and obey a human. The trick is to start training them when they are small enough to punish when they misbehave, and they will continue to obey and respect you once they get big enough to rip you limb from limb. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 25 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki, fear and respect are not the same thing, and just because you fear something, it doesn't mean you won't kill it, or at least attempt to. I mean, that's how most prejudices happen. And Siegfried & Roy would have a different opinion about whether large cats are capable of attacking their handlers, along with probably dozens of other handlers and trainers that have been attacked by their felines. There's a reason why there's a ban on large cat pet ownership. fws.gov/what-you-need-know-about-big-cat-public-safety-act $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Statistically speaking, captive elephants are 3 times as dangerous as tigers because there is never a life stage that they can't push you around, and yet, humans have been training elephants for over 4000 years. I'm not saying it isn't a dangerous job, just that it is doable. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 26 at 19:36
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If it is a sabertoothed CAT, then no. Cats do not have the stamina, or the build to drag heavy loads over large distances.

I would rather suggest something like:

A sabertooth bear - bears are trainable, significantly more robust than felines, and have much greater stamina for long term exertion.

A sabertooth canine - something like a giant wolf or a dog. Basically a pony-sized husky dog with giant fangs.

A sabertooth hyena - while not as robust as bears, or tireless as wolves, hyenas have powerful shoulder muscles which would help drag a heavy load. They are also social, and can eat just about any kind of meat no matter how rotten, making them much easier to train and keep.

A sabertooth wolverine - combines the advantages of a bear and a hyena. The only drawback is that they are ornery and hard to domesticate.

And finally a sabertooth Thylacine ! They look like a mixture of a dog and a tiger. They had the stamina of a wolf, bot not its aggression. It also has two cool advantages for load bearing: it has much stiffer joints, making it slower but much better at withstanding heavy loads. Two, it is a marsupial, which carries its young in a pouch, so females need not be put out of work during pregnancy and young rearing. It even had the option of a kangaroo-like hopping on hind legs, which might be useful if a sudden powerful burst is need to say, pull a stuck cart out of a ditch.

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Possibly...but it's borderline if cats are used as the closest example

Not all animals can be domesticated. The book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" has a chapter named "Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle" which lists the traits required to domesticate an animal:

The traits are:

  1. Fast growth rate
  2. Breedable in captivity
  3. Amicable disposition
  4. Not prone to panicking
  5. Has a social structure (lets humans take over the hierarchy)

It's not really feasible to breed any trait you want into any animal.

Despite other answers focused on the difficulty of feeding a carnivorous animal it's, notice that food isn't in the list. Being carnivorous does make feeding more difficult but dogs and cats have been domesticated regardless. They are, however, comparatively small.

Zebras, for instance, would seem to be a much more receptive candidate for a draught animal than a sabre tooth tiger, yet they have proved to be untameable despite being a herbivorous pack animal that bears very close resemblance to one of the most well known domesticated large animals: horses.

However, what you do have on your side for the domestication of sabre tooth tigers is that cats have been domesticated. On the other hand, what you have against you is that humans been unable to domesticate cats to be nearly as obedient as dogs or draught animals but the housecats were domesticated from solitary wild cats, and we know it is possible for felines to pack animals (lions). So if your sabretooth tigers are pack animals, it could be more plausible.

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  • $\begingroup$ An important note about domestic cats is that cats have not historically been breed to the same specifications as dogs. Many dogs are big enough to significantly harm a human, so large, violent dogs as pets are strongly selected against. However, many smaller dog breeds are just as aggressive and disobedient as cats because those traits matter less in an animal that is not big enough to cause serious harm. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 26 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki However, cats also follow that same premise. A cat is more lethal than a dog of the same size, so you can't compare sizes between cats and dogs as a proxy for relative lethality. If it were equally easy to improve the obedience of cats, you would expect the largest dog and the largest cat to have the same potential lethality and similar obedience level; Just the cat is smaller because it can pack more lethality in the same sized package. You don't see this though. The largest cat is not as obedient as the largest dog and less dangerous. That points to temperament as an obstacle. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 26 at 20:40

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