Monday 3 June 2024

Creationism in Crisis - A Scimitar-Toothed Cat From Texas From At Least 2000 Years Before 'Creation Week'

In the fossil specimen that is the subject of this research paper, two teeth are visible breaking out at the bottom: an incisor, and the tip of a partially-erupted canine. The scale bar at the top right of the image is 1 centimeter.
Credit: Sam Houston State University
“Ugly” Fossil Places Extinct Saber-Toothed Cat on Texas Coast | Jackson School of Geosciences | The University of Texas at Austin

Paleaontologists have shown that, what looked like a piece of rock, discovered on a Texas beach about 60 years ago, contains the skull of a young scimitar-toothed cat or Homotherium, that lived at least 12,000 years ago.

The skull was found on McFaddin Beach, south of Beaumont, by Professor Russell Long, of Lamar University, but was donated by U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, a former student of Long’s who worked for 38 years as a dentist.

Because the skull is that of a young Homotherium, the teeth are not fully erupted, so they have been preserved in the rock, in the skull, instead of being broken off, making identification possible.

The significance of the find, which would have originated in the now-submerged neotropical strip of land that acted as a corridor for species to migrate between Texas and Florida during the Pleistocene, is that it helps build a picture of the ecosystem in that coastal strip, where Homotherium would have been an apex predator.

The team of palaeontologists, led by John Moretti from Jackson School of Geosciences, Texas University at Austin, Texas, USA, included scientists from the Department of Biological Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA, and Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas, USA. They have published their finding in the American Association for Anatomy journal, The Anatomical Record and describe it in The University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences news release:
Tell me all about Homotherium, including where and when they lived, please. Homotherium, commonly known as the scimitar-toothed cat, is an extinct genus of machairodontine saber-toothed cats that roamed the Earth during the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, approximately from 4 million to 12,000 years ago. Here are some detailed aspects about Homotherium:

Physical Characteristics
  • Size and Build: Homotherium was roughly the size of a modern lion, but with a more robust build. It had relatively shorter legs compared to other saber-toothed cats, suggesting it was a powerful and efficient ambush predator rather than a high-speed chaser.
  • Teeth and Jaw: Its most distinctive feature was its upper canine teeth, which were flatter and more blade-like than the long, conical fangs of its relative Smilodon. These teeth were ideal for slicing through flesh.
  • Skull and Musculature: The skull structure suggests it had a powerful bite, aided by strong neck muscles. The wide nasal openings indicate it might have had a better sense of smell.

Distribution and Habitat
  • Geographic Range: Homotherium species were widespread, with fossils found in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. This wide distribution indicates they were highly adaptable to various environments.
  • Habitat: They inhabited diverse environments, including open grasslands, shrublands, and forested areas. The preference for open habitats might have been related to their hunting strategies, which involved ambushing large prey.

Behavior and Ecology
  • Diet: Homotherium primarily hunted large herbivores such as horses, bison, camels, young mammoths, and rhinos. Their physical adaptations suggest they were capable of taking down large and potentially dangerous prey.
  • Social Structure: There is evidence suggesting that Homotherium may have lived in social groups or packs, similar to modern lions. This social behavior could have been advantageous for hunting large prey and protecting their young.

Homotherium, like many other large Pleistocene megafauna, went extinct around the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 12,000 years ago. The reasons for their extinction are likely multifactorial, including climate change, habitat loss, and the impact of human activities.

Fossil Discoveries
  • Notable Sites: Significant Homotherium fossils have been discovered at sites such as Friesenhahn Cave in Texas, USA, and the famous La Brea Tar Pits in California, USA. These sites have provided substantial insight into the physical characteristics, diet, and behaviors of these formidable predators.
  • Preservation: The excellent preservation of some Homotherium specimens, including well-preserved skeletons and even some soft tissue, has allowed scientists to study their anatomy and ecology in great detail.

Importance in Paleoecology
Homotherium played a crucial role in its ecosystems as an apex predator. Its interactions with prey and competition with other predators like the more famous Smilodon give us valuable insights into the dynamics of Pleistocene ecosystems.

In summary, Homotherium was a highly successful and adaptable predator that thrived across multiple continents for millions of years before its extinction. Its distinct physical and behavioral adaptations set it apart from other saber-toothed cats and highlight the diversity of prehistoric megafauna.
Important scientific finds don’t always come in the biggest, buzziest packages. Sometimes new discoveries come in little ugly rocks. Such is the case of a 6-centimeter-wide, nondescript mass of bone and teeth that helped a scientist at The University of Texas at Austin expand the geographic footprint of a large cat that roamed the Earth tens of thousands of years ago.

You can’t even tell what it is, let alone which animal it came from. It’s like a geode. It’s ugly on the outside, and the treasure is all inside.

John Moretti, lead author
Jackson School of Geosciences
University of Texas at Austin, TX, USA>

The research was published in the May issue of The Anatomical Record.

The fossil looks like a lumpy, rounded rock with a couple of exposed teeth that are a little worse for wear, having been submerged and tumbled along the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for thousands of years before washing up on a beach. But when the fossil was X-rayed at the Jackson School’s University of Texas Computed Tomography Lab, Moretti saw there was more to the fossil that met the eye: a hidden canine tooth that had not yet erupted from the jaw bone.

It was just what Moretti needed to identify the fossil as belonging to a Homotherium, a genus of large cat that roamed much of the Earth for millions of years. Because this specific cat wasn’t fully grown when it died, its distinctive saber-like canine tooth had not fallen into its permanent position. Nestled inside the jaw, the tooth was protected from the elements.

Had that saber tooth been all the way erupted and fully in its adult form, and not some awkward teenage in-between stage, it would have just snapped right off. It wouldn’t have been there, and we wouldn’t have that to use as evidence.

John Moretti.

Homotherium spanned across habitats in Africa, Eurasia and the Americas. It was a large, robust cat about the size of a jaguar, with an elongated face, lanky front legs, and a sloping back that ended in a bobtail. Their serrated canine teeth were covered by large gum flaps, similar to domestic dogs today.

Their fossils have been found in several areas of Texas, but this fossil shows for the first time that the big cat roamed the now-submerged continental shelf that connects Texas and Florida. Scientists hypothesize that this stretch of land was a Neotropical corridor. Animals such as capybaras and giant armadillos that wouldn’t have ventured farther north used this strip of humid grassland to move from Mexico to Texas to Florida.

The discovery that Homotherium lived along this corridor gives scientists a small glimpse into the ecology of this landscape during the Late Pleistocene, Moretti said. Big carnivores such as these cats helped shape the broader animal community, tamping down prey-animal populations and influencing regional biodiversity.

The fossil specimen was discovered more than 60 years ago on McFaddin Beach, south of Beaumont, by Russell Long, a professor at Lamar University, but was donated by U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, a former student of Long’s who worked for 38 years as a dentist. Babin said that his training in paleontology and dentistry helped him recognize that what seems like a strange rock at first glance is actually an upper jaw bone and teeth.

“Without question, my professional knowledge and what I’ve learned as a dentist helped me in that regard,” he said.

The research is part of a larger initiative on McFaddin Beach fossils started in 2018 by William Godwin, curator at the Sam Houston State University Natural Science Museum and a co-author of the study. Co-authors also include Deanna Flores, Christopher J. Bell, Adam Hartstone-Rose, and Patrick J. Lewis. The research was funded by UT, Sam Houston State University and North Carolina State University.
Sadly, the paper in The Anatomical Record is behind an expensive paywall, so only the abstract is available:

The machairodontine felid Homotherium achieved a global geographic distribution throughout much of the Pleistocene. Accordingly, that large carnivore is important for understanding patterns of community composition. We report on a new record of Homotherium based on a fragmentary premaxilla–maxilla discovered on McFaddin Beach, Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico. Skeletal remains of extinct, Pleistocene vertebrates accumulate on McFaddin Beach. Those fossils appear to originate from submerged deposits on the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, an area that was subaerially exposed in the Late Pleistocene during glacial intervals. Marine erosion and transport altered the externally visible morphology of the current specimen, obscuring and/or damaging taxonomically informative details of the preserved dentition. However, high-resolution X-ray computed tomography revealed diagnostic portions of the unerupted crown of an upper canine within its alveolus. The serrated edges of the canine combined with the position of the incisors demonstrate that the specimen from McFaddin Beach represents a species of Homotherium. That specimen is the latest in a larger sample of Homotherium in Texas that spans most of the Pliocene–Pleistocene. This is the first occurrence of Homotherium from the continental shelf of the Gulf Coast. That landscape may have formed a broad subtropical Gulf Coast corridor that facilitated the dispersal of Neotropical taxa along the coast between Texas and Florida. The associated fauna from McFaddin Beach contains Neotropical mammals common to southern Texas and Florida and indicates that Homotherium was a member of the fauna inhabiting the Gulf Coast corridor during the Late Pleistocene.

Moretti, J. A., Flores, D., Bell, C. J., Godwin, W., Hartstone-Rose, A., & Lewis, P. J. (2024).
The scimitar-cat Homotherium from the submerged continental shelf of the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The Anatomical Record, 1–11.

© 2024 American Association for Anatomy.
Reprinted under the terms of s60 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
As an apex predator, Homotherium would have needed an established ecosystem in which to live, and this ecosystem existed on land which has since become submerged as sea-levels rose at the end of the last ice age, so its existence is entirely consistent with several strands of evidence that there was well-established life on Earth may thousands of years before creationists believe Earth existed.

Their belief, which depends on ignorance and a psychotic fear of learning anything which contradicts it, stems from a childishly naïve tale, made up by Middle Eastern pastoralists who knew nothing of North America, the last ice age, scimitar-toothed cats or the biology of ecosystems, based on their limited and parochial view of the world, complete with magic and invisible sprits, is an accurate description of Earth's history and of life on it.

This belief would be quaint in a child, but is astoundingly ignorant in an adult, and astonishing in an age when information is so freely available and easily accessible.

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