Sabertooth Cousin Found in Venezuela Tar Pit -- A First

José Orozco in Caracas, Venezuela
for National Geographic News
August 22, 2008

The remains of an ancient scimitar cat—a relative of the mighty Ice Age predator, the sabertooth—have been found lodged in a tar pit in eastern Venezuela, scientists say.

The fierce hunter was found alongside more than 33 species of ancient animals that date back 1.8 million years, to the early Pleistocene.

The scimitar cat and several of the species have never before been found in South America.

Along with six scimitar cat jaws and one skull, unprecedented finds include a type of tapir; a tooth that belonged to a spider monkey; and two species of glyptodons, large armored animals related to armadillos.

Ascanio Rincon, the site's lead researcher and a paleontologist at the state-run Venezuelan Scientific Research Institute, hopes the specimens, found in 2006, will help reconstruct the ecology and animal behavior during the early Pleistocene.

The find may also reveal the migration of North American and South American plants and animals that took place two to three million years ago when the two continents unified, scientists say.

"The fossil record of animals in this period in northern South America is very poor," Rincon said.

"The deposit could teach us a great deal about [ancient migrations] particularly here at the door of entry."

Death Traps

Tar pits form when fault lines or porous rocks allow underground pressure to push oil up from the subsoil onto the surface, Rincon said.

During the rainy season, puddles form and vegetation takes root, attracting animals, their predators and, later, scavengers that get trapped in the tar and die.

The ancient environment at the tar pit was likely similar to today—one of hot savannas and scattered trees, he added.

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