February 26, 1999


LAWRENCE -- The discovery of two complete fossils of saber-toothed cats in central Florida will force paleontologists to rewrite the textbooks on the extinct animal, says a noted researcher at the University of Kansas.

Larry Dean Martin, senior curator of paleontology at KU's Natural History Museum, said the find is the "most interesting fossil carnivore discovery since 1970."

Martin, recognized worldwide as an authority on saber-toothed cats, credits the discovery of the "xenosmilus" -- the proposed name for the new find -- to two amateur fossil collectors who were searching a mining fissure in central Florida.

"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.

"You can categorize cats by their upper canines," he said, explaining that before the discovery, there were two general categories:

1) Dirk-tooth -- two long, narrow upper canine teeth and short legs, "built like a bear," and

2) Scimitar-tooth -- two shorter, broader upper canines and long legs "built like a cheetah."

The new discovery "blew that notion away," he said. The xenosmilus has two short, broad upper canines and short legs.

"When I first saw the picture of the cranium with the two short and broad upper canines, I knew what it was," Martin said. "Then I saw the legs and said that the two didn't go together."

The two collectors, Martin said, found the skeletons, estimated to belong to animals that lived more than 1 million years ago, while searching for peccary fossils -- large wild pigs. The two saber-toothed cat fossils were found with dozens of peccary fossils, suggesting that the area was a den for the two cats and that they brought their game back to the den.

Martin, who was instrumental in examining and describing an entire new group of saber-toothed cats in the 1970s, admits that this discovery came as a shock.

The owner of one of the sets of fossils, John Babiarz, Mesa, Arizona, is an amateur paleontologist with a great interest in saber-toothed cats who possesses a large collection of specimens, Martin said. After obtaining one of the complete xenosmilus fossils -- the second is in a museum in Florida -- Babiarz contacted Martin.

"John has been a generous contributor to our program at KU and has more than 100 specimens of saber-tooth cat fossils," Martin said. "When he asked me to take a look, I thought it was a good idea."

According to Martin, the new discovery seems to be a more specialized saber-toothed cat. "This raises the questions: did the xenosmilus become extinct at this time, and did the smilodon -- a more modern saber-toothed cat more than 20,000 years old -- become dominant only after the new guy became extinct?"

Prior to this discovery, the best-known location for saber-toothed cat fossils were in the fossil tar pits at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles.

North America was home to the saber-toothed cats for more than 40 million years, but they became extinct more than 11,000 years ago.

Contact: Dann Hayes, (785) 864-8855 or dhayes@ukans.edu.


Martin photo and all seven sketches

For a camera-ready scan, contact Dann Hayes.

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