Saber-tooth Skull of Prehistoric Predator Found in Southwest Iowa

(Radio Iowa) In the animated movie “Ice Age,” there was a scary, saber-tooth tiger named Diego — which had real-life counterparts that lived in Iowa some 13-thousand years ago during the real Ice Age. Researchers at Iowa State University say the recent discovery of a saber-tooth skull in southwest Iowa is the first evidence the prehistoric predator once roamed the land we now call home. I-S-U archaeology professor Matthew Hill says the exceptionally rare find is in “exquisite” condition.

“It’s the first evidence for this cat in Iowa. It’s a very big deal,” Hill says. “Large predators like the saber tooth cat, outside of southern California, they’re extremely rare and there’s probably only about 70 of these specimens across the country.” The skull from the young male cat was discovered in 2017 in Page County along the banks of the East Ninshnabotna River. Hill says it’s in near-perfect condition, which is astounding, given its age.

“As a sub-adult male, it was already larger than the same animal in Southern California,” Hill says. “We estimate that it was two to three years old and that it weighed 250 kilograms.” That’s about 550 pounds, so, a very large and lethal animal that was built for both speed and stealth. Had it reached adulthood, the cat may’ve approached 650 pounds, compared to the modern adult male African lion, which only weighs about 400 pounds.

“One really interesting thing about the specimen is that we have one complete canine, but this tooth right here is broken,” Hill says, “and it has characteristics of having been broken around the time of death.” Hill says it’s possible the animal was seriously hurt while attacking prey, which ultimately proved fatal. Radiocarbon dating shows the cat died at the end of the Ice Age between 13,605 and 13,460 years ago. Hill, an expert on animal bones, says this creature may have been one of the last sabertooths to walk the earth as the glaciers receded and temperatures warmed.

“To have a complete skull like this is exceedingly rare,” Hill says. “It’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles.” The findings are being published in Quaternary Science Reviews.