Perhaps it's proof that you're never too young to consider a career in paleontology: A 7-year-old visitor to Badlands National Park earlier this year spied a partially exposed fossil that turned out to be the skull of a 32-million-year-old saber-toothed cat.
Kylie Ferguson was attending a Junior Ranger program at the park back in May when she thought she saw a fossil in a hillside near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. She relayed this news to the park staffer leading the program, you helped the young lady fill out a paleontological site report.
The Ferguson family is from Sharpsburg, Georgia, and this was 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.
Not long after the fossil was spotted park paleontological technicians removed the fossil and surrounding rock matrix to protect the find from damage or theft. Upon examination, it was determined that the find was the fossilized skull, lower jaw, and vertebrae belonging to an extinct saber-toothed cat, known scientifically as Hoplophoneus.
A few months later Mindy Householder, a fossil preparator from the Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois, visited the park on her way to a fossil dig in Montana. Although the fossil was still encased in the rock matrix, she was excited about the find and volunteered to prepare it once she returned from Montana.
Upon her return in August, Ms. Householder removed the surrounding rock from the fossil and completed all fossil preparation. Once the fossil preparation was completed, "it revealed a beautifully preserved skull with complete canines (saber teeth)," a park release said.
"After closer examination of the remarkable fossil, bite marks were discovered in the skull indicating the cat may have died a violent death, possibly from another saber toothed cat," the release added. "This is an exciting and scientifically significant find since predator fossils are infrequent in the fossil record and complete saber toothed cat skulls with intact canines are extremely rare. Because of the exceptional preservation of this specimen, there is visible evidence on the skull providing insight into how the cat may have died."
This winter park officials plan to have a CT scan of the skull completed at the University of Texas at Austin. This is hoped to provide more information "on internal damage from the bites and provide the opportunity to generate a three dimensional model of the skull for further scientific analysis that won’t require future handling of the fragile fossil itself," the park release said.
In the meantime, the skull has been cataloged into the park’s museum collection and park staff hopes to display a replica of the fossil in the visitor center in the future. In honor of Kylie’s discovery and National Fossil Day, a lesson plan called Kylie’s Fossil Find has been developed for the park’s curriculum-based education program and is available online for teachers.
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," according to park officials. "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."