This past May, while attending the daily Junior Ranger Program at Badlands National Park, seven year old Kylie Ferguson spotted what she thought was a fossil. Kylie reported her find to the park staff member giving the program who then helped her fill out a paleontological site report. The fossil discovery was eroding out of a butte near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, so park paleontological technicians removed the fossil and surrounding rock matrix to protect the find from damage or theft. The fossilized skull, lower jaw, and vertebrae was identified as belonging to an extinct 32 million year old saber toothed cat, known scientifically as Hoplophoneus.
Later in the summer, a fossil preparator from the Burpee Museum in Rockford, IL, Mindy Householder, 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, Mindy was signed up as a VIP and she carefully removed the surrounding rock from the fossil and completed all fossil preparation in August. Once the fossil preparation was completed it revealed a beautifully preserved skull with complete canines (saber teeth). 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. 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 the park plans to have the fossil skull undergo a CT scan at the University of Texas at Austin. It is expected that the CT scan will 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 skull has been catalogued 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.