A Sabertoothed Cat skull has been discovered in Southwest Iowa, United States. This finding is significant because it not only represents the first evidence that this ancient animal once lived in the state but also the remarkable preservation of the skull is extremely rare.
The Sabertoothed cats belong to the extinct subfamily of carnivoran mammals called machairodonts, which are part of the Felidae family (true cats).
Despite being commonly known as “sabertoothed tigers,” they are not closely related to tigers (Panthera). The genus was named in 1842 based on fossils from Brazil, and the name means “scalpel” or “two-edged knife” combined with “tooth.”
The discovery of this well-preserved skull in Page County, southwest Iowa, provides new insights into the species before its extinction around 12-13,000 years ago.
A recent study conducted by researchers from Northwest Missouri State University utilized radiocarbon dating to estimate the age of a cat’s skull. The results revealed that the cat died between 13,605 and 13,460 years ago, towards the end of the Ice Age.
This makes the specimen one of the final sabertoothed cats known to exist before rising planetary temperatures led to the recession of glaciers.
The skull belonged to a subadult male, estimated to have been 2-3 years old and weighing approximately 249 kg, based on comparisons with skulls from the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.
The researchers noted that the environment in southwest Iowa during that period was characterized by parkland with trees interspersed among grassy openings, where sabertoothed cats coexisted with other extinct animals such as dire wolves, giant short-faced bears, long-nosed peccaries, flat-headed peccaries, stag-moose, muskoxen, giant ground sloths, and possibly bison and mammoths.
Matthew Hill, an associate professor of archaeology at Iowa State and an expert on animal bones, mentioned that discovering any fossilized remains of a sabertooth cat is difficult.
However, the discovery of a remarkably well-preserved skull in Page County is even more rare and provides insight into the iconic Ice Age species prior to its extinction.
Hill collaborated with David Easterla, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Biology at Northwest Missouri State University, to analyze the specimen.
Hill emphasized the significance of the find, stating that discoveries of this animal are infrequent and usually limited to an isolated tooth or bone, whereas this skull is in almost perfect condition and is “exquisite.” Although the exact cause of the sabertoothed cat’s death is unclear, a broken canine may provide some insight. The study suggests that the animal suffered serious injury while attacking prey, which ultimately proved fatal within a few days of the trauma.
Their findings are newly published in Quaternary Science Reviews.
More information: Hill, M. G., & Easterla, D. A. (2023). A complete sabertooth cat cranium from the Midcontinent of North America and its evolutionary and ecological context. Quaternary Science Reviews, 307, 108045. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2023.108045