Las Vegas’ New Claim to Fame: Saber-Toothed Cats

After nearly a century of searching, paleontologists found fossils of the extinct saber-toothed cat in the Tule Springs region north of Las Vegas.

“I hate to say we hit the jackpot, this being Vegas—but we did,” says Eric Scott, who discovered the fossils and serves as curator of paleontology for the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, Calif.

Saber-toothed cats—which are frequently but incorrectly called “tigers”—were a lion-sized
predator with long, knife-like canine teeth. Scientists believe they were ambush predators, hunting their prey through stealth and then disemboweling them with their canine teeth. The species died out at the end of the Ice Age 11,000 years ago and left no descendants.

Scientists and scholars have combed the desert north of Las Vegas since the early 1900s,
but none ever succeeded in finding saber-toothed cats. New York’s American Museum of Natural History, California’s Southwest Museum, the University of California, Berkeley and the Nevada State Museum have all visited Tule Springs and made fossil collections following expeditions that dated from before 1920 through the early 1960s. Bones and teeth of mammoths, camels, horses and bison found their way into museum collections across the country, but saber-toothed cats proved elusive.

“Meat-eaters are generally uncommon in the fossil record,” Scott explains. “In living communities, carnivores are far outnumbered by plant-eaters. The same holds true for past ecosystems. This makes fossil remains of extinct carnivores very rare and special, and very tough to find.”

The San Bernardino County Museum team has been searching the upper Las Vegas Wash for fossils from the Pleistocene Epoch, commonly called the Ice Ages, for more than a decade, finding hundreds of sites and thousands of fossils. But saber-toothed cats always kept a low profile—until now.

“We’re ecstatic,” says Kathleen Springer, senior curator for the museum and lead scientist for studies in the upper Las Vegas Wash. “We’ve been saying for years that these critters were out here, somewhere. It was just a matter of time until we found one.”

The initial discovery was made in 2003, during a survey conducted by scientists from the museum who identified more than 400 previously unknown fossil sites in the upper Las Vegas Wash. The find wasn’t visibly spectacular—two broken limb bones eroding out of a small rise in the desert—and the identity of the fossils was obscured by surrounding sediment.

In 2008, under a research grant from the Southern Nevada District Office of the Bureau
of Land Management, San Bernardino County Museum researchers began collecting and curating the fossils found during their earlier surveys. The saber-tooth site was relocated this June, and the fossils have just finished being cleaned, stabilized and identified.

The addition of saber-toothed cats to the Tule Springs bestiary comes at a perfect time. This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the “Big Dig,” a massive interdisciplinary expedition at Tule Springs that explored the prehistory of the region at a scale never before attempted. On Dec. 8, the Nevada State Museum will celebrate this anniversary with an all-day event, Tule Springs ‘Big Dig’: Celebrating 50 Years of Exploration. The event will showcase new exhibits, produced by the San Bernardino County Museum and funded by the Bureau of Land Management, which present highlights of past and current studies at Tule Springs.

Springer and Scott will each present talks on the paleontology and geology of the region. “I expect we may talk a bit about saber-tooth cats, as well,” Scott says.

The new discoveries date to approximately 15,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon analyses.

“We’re establishing a tight radiocarbon chronology for the entire Tule Springs region,” Springer says, “and that work allows us to place individual fossils into our temporal framework. This is essential for understanding how living communities responded to environmental changes through time.”

The ongoing research in the Tule Springs region goes beyond just finding fossils, museum officials say. Funding from the BLM supports an integrative approach to Ice Age studies that emphasizes the geological age and context of the fossils. “We’re building on earlier studies and expanding what they learned,” Springer says. “We’re seeing clear signals of regional responses to climatic changes through time, preserved here in the rock record, which have never been recognized before. The fossils are part of that picture, but there’s so much more going on here.”

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