Evaluation of a saber-toothed cat from Florida by a KU researcher indicates a previously unknown third variety of big cat roamed North America in the Ice Age.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but a Kansas University paleontologist said Friday that discovery of a new type of saber-toothed cat was the most interesting fossil carnivore breakthrough in decades.
The discovery of two complete fossils of saber-toothed cats in central Florida will force researchers to rewrite textbooks on the extinct cats, said Larry Martin. Instead of two categories of big cats roaming North America during the Ice Age, there were three.
"It appears to be a new design of saber-toothed cat," Martin said. "The diversity of saber-toothed cats in North America has changed by one-third."
Researchers had worked under the theory that there were two general categories of big cats -- differences denoted by tooth and leg length.
Martin, senior curator of paleontology at KU's Museum of Natural History and an authority on saber-toothed cats, credited the discovery of "xenosmilus" -- the proposed name for the new find -- to two amateur fossil collectors who were working in Florida.
John Babiarz, a saber-toothed cat collector in Mesa, Ariz., acquired one of the Florida specimens and asked Martin to examine the remains.
"It should have had long legs, given the teeth," Martin said. "It turned out to have short legs."
Since 1970, researchers grouped cats in two categories. The first category was of Dirk-toothed cats, which had two long, narrow upper canine teeth and short legs like a bear. The second category was Scimitar-toothed cats with shorter, broader upper canines and long legs like a cheetah.
The new discovery "blew that notion away," Martin said. The Xenosmilus has two short, broad upper canines and short legs.
"It's not a merging but a separate development," Martin said. "This new animal had an extremely powerful bite where it's able to cut out a big strip of flesh."
North America was home to saber-toothed cats for more than 40 million years, but they became extinct at least 11,000 years ago.
Amateur collectors found the new skeletons, estimated to be 1 million years old, while searching for fossils of large wild pigs. The saber-toothed cats were found with dozens of peccary fossils, suggesting the area was a den and game was routinely hauled back there to be eaten.
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