Many seven year olds—or adults—probably can't spell "paleontologist," but one Junior Ranger from Georgia knows her fossils, and she provided some big news for scientists in that field. The youngster discovered a saber tooth fossil in Badlands National Park that scientists are calling "a find of high importance."
Kylie Ferguson may only be seven, but according to her mom, "She knows the characteristics of fossils because her dad is a geologist. She was really excited and now her dad will just be over the moon!”
Paleontologists are pretty excited about the find as well. A park spokesperson notes, "All fossils are scientifically important, but this fossil find is of high importance. Skulls from saber tooth cats are rare and usually fragmented or partially eroded away. In this case, however, the fossils were found in limestone which provided protection for millions of years allowing the skull to remain in museum display quality."
Kylie was visiting the park with her family on May 30 and spotted the fossil while participating in a Junior Ranger program. The young visitor reported her find to rangers, and paleontologists initially identified the bones as belonging to the oreodont Merycoidodon, an extinct sheep-like animal. Heavy rain throughout the month of June exposed more of the skull and paleontologists soon realized that it was not from the sheep-like animal, but was from the extinct saber tooth cat, Dinictis.
Paleontologists excavated the fossils and some of the surrounding rock the week of June 21st. The fossils will be fully prepared later this summer and added to the museum collection at Badlands National Park.
The Ferguson family is from Sharpsburg, Georgia, and this is the first time Kylie had visited the Badlands. Her dad had traveled through the Badlands on a previous trip to a geology field camp and he wanted to share the sites with his family. The result was certainly memorable for both the family and the park staff.
A park publication notes that Badlands National Park is home to "one of the most complete fossil accumulations in North America, including the largest assemblage of known late Eocene and Oligocene mammal fossils. Oligocene fossil remains include camels, three-toed horses, oreodonts, antelope-like animals, rhinoceroses, deer-like mammals, rabbits, beavers, creodonts, land turtles, rodents and birds. The spectacular vertebrate fossils preserved within the White River Badlands have been studied extensively since 1846 and are included in museum collections throughout the world."
Kylie Ferguson's saber tooth fossil is the latest in some important finds in the park by visitors. In June 1993 two visitors from Iowa discovered a large backbone protruding from the ground near the Conata Picnic Area. Originally thought to be a 4-day excavation, field work continued for over a decade, yielding more than 10,000 fossilized bones for study.