Sharpsburg girl’s find of a lifetime undergoes CT Scan
It was a rare find nearly as old as time itself when then-seven year-old Kylie Ferguson of Sharpsburg discovered the museum-quality fossilized skull of a saber tooth cat at South Dakota’s Badlands National Park in May 2010. Kylie and her family returned to the Badlands last week to watch as 3-D images of the skull were produced using a CT Scan. Skull casts will eventually be available through the non-profit Badlands Natural History Association.
Kylie was visiting the park with her family on May 30 when she made the initial discovery that came while she was participating in the park’s junior ranger program. Park Education Specialist Julie Johndreau said the find came while Kylie was in the area behind the visitors’ center. The find was first thought to be that of a sheep-like animal, the oreodont Merycoidodon.
But that idea quickly changed. Park paleontologist Dr. Rachel Benton said what Kylie observed turned out to be a small portion of a skull along with a one-quarter-inch portion of a canine tooth.
“Heavy rain throughout the month of June exposed more of the skull and some vertebrae, and paleontologists soon realized that it was not from the sheep-like animal, but was from the extinct saber tooth cat, Dinictis,” Johndreau explained after the find.
Paleontologists excavated the fossil and some of the surrounding rock the week of June 21, Johndreau said.
“We have found others here but we’re excited about this because the skull appears to be complete, which is unusual,” Benton said after the discovery. She noted that the skull is indicative of the bobcat-sized saber tooth cats found in the Badlands area.
Johndreau, too, noted the significance of the find. She explained that all fossils are scientifically important, but this fossil find is of high importance.
“There was a lot of excitement here and in our regional and national offices,” Johndreau said at the time of the find. “This is huge because it’s a saber tooth, right here behind the visitors center and it was found by a junior ranger. Skulls from saber tooth cats are rare and usually fragmented or partially eroded away. In this case, however, the fossils were found in limestone which provided protection for millions of years, allowing the skull to remain in museum display quality.”
Kylie and her family returned to South Dakota last week to witness the CT scan of her rare discovery.
“Our whole family is extremely excited,” said Kylie’s father, geologist Tom Ferguson. “We are so glad we attended the Junior Ranger program and reported this fossil. This discovery gives other children a chance to get excited about the science happening in our national parks.”
“Saber tooth cat skulls with intact canines are extremely rare,” Benton said. “In addition to that, bite marks on this skull make it scientifically significant. The CT scan completed (Jan. 27) will provide researchers with information that can be used to determine what type of animal attacked this cat and probably caused its death.”
The Rapid City Regional Hospital CT scanner used to produce 3-D images of the skull was a dual source Siemens SOMATOM Definition Flash, 128-slice CT, which offers fast, high-quality images in less than five seconds. RCRH installed the new scanner in July 2010, Benton said.
In addition to the scientific research aspect, the CT scan will also provide raw data to make a 3-D model of the skull, said Johndreau. A machine at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) will build the model. The resulting plastic cast will be more durable than the fragile fossil.
“We are excited to partner in this project,” said Cindy Hougland, hospital MRI and CT supervisor. “We purchased and installed this technology to benefit all patients in this region. It is a bonus we can utilize it to help our scientific community in this manner.”
When complete, a cast will be on display at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Skull casts will eventually be available for sale through the non-profit Badlands Natural History Association bookstore and online. BNHA supports scientific research and educational programs in the park including this project, Johndreau said.