August 22, 2008

Saber Tooth Cat Found in Venezuela

Venezuelan workers found more than just oil, when they laid a pipeline near an ancient tar pit. They discovered a rich trove of fossils, including a saber-toothed cat-that scientists had never seen the likes of before the unearthing.

The fossils date back 1.8 million years. The discovery includes skulls and jawbones of six scimitar-toothed cats, which is a variety of saber-toothed cat with shorter, narrower canine teeth compared to other species.

Venezuelan paleontologist Ascanio Rincon led the research team. He announced the discovery in August, and scientists also found a rare window into the environment shortly after North and South America became connected following an age of separation.

Researchers suggest scimitar-toothed cats - of the genus Homotherium - crossed from North America to South America shortly after the continents grew together and became linked in modern-day Panama. That followed a 65-million-year separation, a "moment of great exchange" between the continents.

"The deposit could be one of the most important in South America in the last 60 years," said Rincon.

Other experts agree with Rincon.

"The find is one of the most spectacular and scientifically interesting discoveries of the last decade," said University of Kansas professor Larry D. Martin, an expert on saber-toothed cats who was not involved in the find. "The genus hadn't been known from South America before."

The Venezuelan tar pits are found near the surface of the soil in the eastern state of Monagas; they are bigger than two football fields combined.

The oil company designated the site for research in 2006. In April 2007, a team from the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Studies found the prized fossils.

However, during 2008, Venezuela's Cultural Heritage Institute has barred researchers from the site. Rincon says this move has left it exposed to sun and rain, and potentially damaged the fossils.

The Institute also took away Rincon's permit last year. It has yet to publicly explain why.

Currently, Rincon said his institution is negotiating with the agency so that researchers may return and protect the fossils.

Argentine paleontologist Francisco Prevosti, called the Venezuelan discovery of "utmost importance for South American paleontology."

Experts agree the now-extinct scimitar-toothed cat was previously confirmed to have inhabited Africa, Europe, Asia and North America - but not South America.