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"Our results show that the sabertooths diverge early and are not closely related to any living cats," write Ross Barnett of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre in Oxford and colleagues in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.
Sabertoothed cats went extinct about 13,000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age, as did many other large cats that once roamed the North American plains.
These include the Yukon scimitartoothed cat, the American lion-like cat or Panthera atrox and a cheetah-like cat called Miracinonyx trumani.
The only large cats that survived in the Western Hemisphere were the puma and the jaguar.
Experts who have studied the US navy's cetacean training exercises claim the 36 mammals could be carrying 'toxic dart' guns. Divers and surfers risk attack, they claim, from a species considered to be among the planet's smartest. The US navy admits it has been training dolphins for military purposes, but has refused to confirm that any are missing.
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[Accident investigator Leo Sheridan remarks,] 'My concern is that they have learnt to shoot at divers in wetsuits who have simulated terrorists in exercises. If divers or windsurfers are mistaken for a spy or suicide bomber and if equipped with special harnesses carrying toxic darts, they could fire. . . . The darts are designed to put the target to sleep so they can be interrogated later, but what happens if the victim is not found for hours?'