A rare, well-preserved skull of a sabertooth cat has been discovered in Page County, Iowa, providing valuable insights into the life of this prehistoric predator. The complete skull, belonging to the Smilodon fatalis species, was found in near-perfect condition and radiocarbon analysis has indicated that the animal died between 13,605 and 13,460 years ago, just before the species went extinct at the end of the Ice Age.

Matthew Hill, an associate professor of archaeology at Iowa State, called the discovery a “big deal” as finds of sabertooth cats are usually limited to isolated bones or teeth. This particular specimen is believed to have belonged to a young male who weighed around 550 pounds at the time of its death and may have grown up to 650 pounds in adulthood.

Researchers hope to learn more about the sabertooth cat’s diet by analyzing the geochemical composition of its bones using a stable isotope mixing model. Hill is collaborating with his colleague, Andrew Somerville, an assistant professor of archaeology, to develop this model with samples from the sabertooth cat and other animals that lived during the Ice Age in Iowa, such as Jefferson’s giant ground sloth, muskox, and stag-moose.

Stable isotopes provide researchers with information about what plants herbivores consumed, and, in turn, what herbivores the carnivores ate. Hill believes that the sabertooth cat primarily hunted Jefferson’s giant ground sloth, which was a common species in Iowa at the time.

According to Hill, only a large predator with “absolutely lethal jaws and claws” and legs designed for pouncing could have hunted these giant ground sloths regularly. The broken canine of the Iowa sabertooth cat suggests that it may have sustained a severe injury while attacking its prey, which may have ultimately led to its death. The researchers found small patches of worn-down bone on top of the skull, which suggest that it slid along a river bottom before coming to rest and becoming buried for thousands of years.

The discovery of the sabertooth cat skull has opened up new avenues of research beyond the initial analysis. Researchers hope to learn more about the ecology of these extinct animals, their responses to climate change, and their interactions with new predators and competitors on the landscape, including humans.

The findings of Hill and his colleagues have been published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, and their research promises to shed further light on the lives and habits of these prehistoric predators and the ecosystems they inhabited.

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