A Very Old Saber Tooth Cat Fossil Gets a Very Modern CT Scan

Junior Rangers Kylie (right) and Skylar (left) returned to the Badlands to see the fully prepared fossilized cat skull that Kylie discovered on their May 2010 vacation. NPS Photo by Sara Feldt.

Thanks to an alert seven-year-old Junior Ranger and a partnership between Badlands National Park and the Rapid City Regional Hospital (RCRH), a prehistoric saber tooth cat skull fossil had a seemingly improbable appointment with state-of-the-art 21st century technology for a CT scan. Scientists have estimated that the skull is about 33 million years old.

The fossil was discovered last summer by seven-year-old Kylie Ferguson while she and her family were on vacation in Badlands National Park. Kylie and her family were back in South Dakota last week to witness the CT scan of her amazing discovery at RCRH.

"Our whole family is extremely excited," notes Kylie's dad, Tom Ferguson. "We are so glad we attended the Junior Ranger program and reported this fossil. This discovery gives other children a chance to get excited about the science happening in our national parks."

"Saber tooth cat skulls with intact canines are extremely rare," said park paleontologist Rachel Benton. "In addition to that, bite marks on this skull make it scientifically significant. The CT scan completed today will provide researchers with information that can be used to determine what type of animal attacked this cat and probably caused its death."

The Regional Hospital CT scanner used to produce 3-D images of the skull was a dual source Siemens SOMATOM Definition Flash, 128-slice CT, which offers fast, high-quality images in less than five seconds. RCRH installed the new scanner in July of 2010.

"We are excited to partner in this project," said Cindy Hougland, RCRH Supervisor of MRI and CT. "We purchased and installed this technology to benefit all patients in this region. It is a bonus we can utilize it to help our scientific community in this manner."

In addition to the scientific research aspect, the CT scan will also provide raw data to make a 3-D model of the skull. A machine at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) will build the model. The resulting plastic cast will be more durable than the fragile fossil. When complete, a cast will be on display at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the park.

Skull casts will eventually be available for sale through the non-profit Badlands Natural History Association (BNHA) bookstore and online. BNHA supports scientific research and educational programs in the park including this project.

One question that won't be answered by the CT scan is the preferred format for the name of this ancient mammal. Credible sources list it as saber tooth, saber-tooth, sabertoothed and saber-toothed. No matter how you choose to spell it, the fossil is a fascinating find.