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Brad Matthews


NextImg:Skull of prehistoric sabertooth big cat found in Iowa

A sabertooth cat skull found in Iowa is the first evidence that the prehistoric predator once inhabited the area, according to a recently published study.

The skull, found in 2017, was the subject of a study published online on Thursday in Quaternary Science Reviews.

Even finding a skull to begin with is rare with sabertooth cats. Outside of southern California, there are not many finds of the species’ remains, and what finds do exist are often fragmentary. There are only 70 sabertooth specimens nationwide.

“The skull is a really big deal. Finds of this animal are widely scattered and usually represented by an isolated tooth or bone. This skull from the East Nishnabotna River is in near perfect condition,” Iowa State University associate professor of archaeology Matthew Hill, one of the study’s authors, said in a university release.

Radiocarbon dating determined the skull was somewhere between 13,605 and 13,460 years of age, right around the end of the most recent ice age; the cat was among the last of its species to walk the Earth. Iowa at the time, Mr. Hill said, would have been a “parkland,” with patches of trees mixed in with grassy knolls.

“It’s the fourth-youngest radiocarbon-dated sabertooth cat in the Western Hemisphere at present. That means that extinction probably happened shortly after this animal died,” Mr. Hill told Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based newspaper The Gazette.

After studying the skull, Mr. Hill and others determined that the sabertooth cat was a growing, 2- to 3-year-old male. The permanent teeth in the skull do not show the wear and tear of age, for example, and gaps between skull plates indicate that it had not reached its full size.

At the time of death, it’s estimated that the cat was 550 pounds, and would have 650 pounds in peak condition. By comparison, an adult African lion only weighs around 400 to 420 pounds.

The exact manner of the sabertooth’s death was unclear, but one of its canines was broken. This led Mr. Hill and colleagues to hypothesize that, given the traumatic injury, the cat died only days after the break occurred.

“We think that possibly one of the canines was broken during an encounter with a large animal, potentially a prey,” Mr. Hill told The Gazette.

• Brad Matthews can be reached at bmatthews@washingtontimes.com.